A new report from the USDA says Americans are eating less fat than we did 30 years ago.  Here’s the opening from an online article about the report:

On average, Americans are eating 10g less fat per day today than they were in the late 1970s, according to new research.  In a report comparing food consumption patterns in 1977-78 versus 2005-2008, Biing-Hwan Lin and Joanne Guthrie from USDA’s Economic Research Service found that on average, Americans consumed 75.2g of fat in 2005-08 compared with 85.6g in 1977-78.

Meanwhile, the percentage of total calories derived from fat also declined substantially from 39.7% to 33.4% between 1977 and 2008, said the authors.

Hallelujah!  Now that USDA itself is admitting we’re eating less fat, surely they’ll finally also admit that the rise we’ve seen in obesity and metabolic syndrome in the past 30 years can’t be blamed on fat.  I can just hear the press conference where they announce they’re allowing whole milk back in schools …

However, with more Americans eating out than ever before, a growing proportion of the fat that they do consume is the unhealthy, saturated, variety, said the authors, noting that almost a third (31.6%) of calories were from foods consumed outside the home in 2005-8 compared with just 17.7% in the late 1970s.

“Food consumed away from home is higher in saturated fat than foods consumed at home [in the 2005-8 data set].  The higher percent of calories from saturated fat in fast-foods was especially noteworthy at 13.5%, compared with 11.9% in restaurant foods, 12.3% in school foods, and 10.7% in foods consumed at home.”

Similarly, foods consumed away from home in 2005-8 contained significantly more sodium (1,820mg of sodium per 1,000 calories), than foods consumed at home (1,369mg sodium per 1,000 calories); with foods from restaurants and fast-food outlets particularly sodium-dense at 2,151mg and 1,864mg of sodium per 1,000 calories, respectively.

Head.  Bang.  On.  Desk.

Faced with their own evidence that fat didn’t commit the crime, the USDA researchers nonetheless rounded up the usual suspects:  Saturated Fat and his evil sidekick Sodium.  I wondered if perhaps the news story missed the point of the USDA report, so I looked it up online.

Nope, the report is full of hand-wringing about how much more often Americans these days eat in restaurants, where (egads!) the meals are higher in saturated fat.  Here are some pieces of the report:

Food prepared away from home (FAFH)—whether from table-service restaurants, fast-food establishments and other locations, or from a take-out or delivery meal eaten at home—is now a routine part of the diets of most Americans. Previous Economic Research Service (ERS) research found that FAFH tends to be lower in nutritional quality than food prepared at home (FAH), increases caloric intake, and reduces diet quality among adults and children. This study updates previous research by examining dietary guidance and the nutritional quality of FAH versus FAFH in 2005-08, compared with 1977-78.

Poor diets contribute to obesity, heart disease, stroke, cancer, diabetes, osteoarthritis, and other health conditions that impose substantial economic burden on Americans (USDA/USDHHS, 2011; USDHHS, 2010). The medical costs associated with overweight and obesity have been estimated as high as $147 billion, or 10 percent of all medical costs in 2008 (Finkelstein et al., 2009; O’Grady and Capretta, 2012; Tsai et al., 2011). These enormous costs are one reason that USDA and other public and private entities place a high priority on improving Americans’ diets.

Well, we’re all grateful beyond belief that the USDA is dedicated to improving our diets and putting the country on sound financial footing as a result.  So what’s the “poor diet” that’s contributing to all those problems?

As the share of food expenditures spent on FAFH has risen over the past 30 years, so has the share of calories and nutrients consumed from such food. Previous ERS research found that FAFH in the 1990s contained less of the food components Americans underconsume, such as calcium and dietary fiber, and more of those overconsumed, such as fat, compared with FAH.

So there’s the problem:  we eat out more than we did 30 years ago, and restaurant food is higher in saturated fat (and sodium, as the researchers note several times in the report).  Case closed.

Except we somehow manage to consume less fat than we did 30 years ago, despite a higher calorie intake.  Are we actually eating a lot more saturated fat than our grandparents did, despite eating less fat overall?  How can that be?

If you suspect the USDA decided to toss around some accusatory percentages in order to frame their favorite suspect, you’d be right. I can almost imagine the conversation in the hallowed halls of USDA research:

“Did you finish crunching the numbers, Jenkins?”

“Yes, sir.  Good news:  people are eating less fat than they did in 1978.”

“Whew!  For a minute there, I thought you were going to say people are eating less fat.”

“I did say that, sir.  But rates of obesity and diabetes are clearly–”

“Great.  There you have it, then.  We should continue telling people to cut back on fat.”

“But sir, they have cut back on fat, almost to the level we’ve been recommending.”

@#$%!! Okay, here’s what you do, Jenkins.  Figure out how much more saturated fat is in restaurant food.  Then let’s roll those figures together with the data on how much more often people eat in restaurants these days.  Use percentages, because that makes the numbers look bigger.”

“One step ahead of you, sir.  I already crunched those numbers, and in terms of total saturated fat intake, the difference is only—”

“Jenkins, I don’t think you understand what I’m saying, so let me explain it this way:  shut up.”

The report mentions using surveys for collecting data, so the numbers are suspect.  But the USDA based a study on the data and reached conclusions about what’s causing our health issues, so let’s go along for the ride.

According to the report, we consumed an average of 1,875 calories per day in 1978 and 2,002 calories per day in 2008.  I thought those figures sounded ridiculously low until I realized the data is for Americans ages 2 and up.  I don’t know how many calories my daughters consume in a day, but it’s nowhere close to 2,000.  Kids obviously bring down the averages.

Now, let’s suppose we heed the USDA’s warnings about the higher saturated-fat content in restaurant meals and decide we shouldn’t be consuming 31.6% of our total calories in restaurants.  Let’s go back to consuming just 17.7% percent of our calories in restaurants, like in the good ol’ days of 1978.  (You may dig out your leisure suit and pull up KC and the Sunshine Band in iTunes if it helps you get in the mood.)

The report tells us that meals at home average 10.7% saturated fat by calories, restaurant meals average 11.9% saturated fat by calories, and fast-food meals average 13.5% saturated fat by calories.  Well, heck, just to tip the scales in favor of the USDA’s argument, I’m going to assume all restaurant meals are fast-food meals.  So using the 2008 average of 2,002 calories per day, here’s how our saturated-fat intake is affected by consuming 31.6% of our calories in restaurants instead of 17.7%  — I’ll listen to Sara’s math teacher and show my work:

31.6% calories consumed in restaurants:

Restaurant: (2,002 calories) x (13.5% sat-fat) x (31.6%) = 85.4
Home: (2,002 calories) x (10.7% sat-fat) x (68.4%) = 146.5

Add our home and restaurant meals together, and we’re averaging 231.9 calories per day from saturated fat.  I’ll do the USDA a favor and round up to 232 calories.  Now let’s heed the USDA’s advice.

17.7% calories consumed in restaurants:

Restaurant: (2,002 calories) x (13.5% sat-fat) x (17.7%) = 47.8
Home: (2,002 calories) x (10.7% sat-fat) x (82.3%) = 176.3

Add them together, we get an average of 224.1 calories per day from saturated fat.  I’ll do the USDA a favor and round down to 224 calories.

So here’s what we’re looking at if we do the math the USDA either didn’t do or chose not to share, opting instead for big, scary-sounding percentages so they could continue placing the blame on saturated fat:

Based on their own data, the difference between consuming 31.6% vs. 17.7% of our meals in fast-food joints works out to (hold your breath!) … 8 calories of saturated fat per day. Or you could calculate it as 25.8 grams per day vs.  24.9 grams per day.

Since I’m feeling generous, I’ll forget that we consume less fat now than in 1978 and run the numbers assuming we reduced both our total calorie intake and the percentage of calories consumed in restaurants to 1978 levels:

Restaurant: (1,875 calories) x (13.5% sat-fat) x (17.7%) = 44.8
Home: (1,875 calories) x (10.7% sat-fat) x (82.3%) = 165.1

The combined daily average is 209.9 calories from saturated fat.  Let’s call it 210.  So if we reduced our calorie consumption and percent of calories consumed in restaurants to 1978 levels, we’d be talking about 23.3 grams per day of saturated fat instead of 25.8 — a difference of 2.5 grams per day.  And to repeat, I ran those numbers assuming all restaurant meals are fast-food meals — which they aren’t.

Yup, I’d say the USDA has found the cause of all of our health problems.  We eat out more often, and we’re clearly loading up saturated fat as a result.

By the way, the term saturated fat appeared in the report 19 times.  The word sugar appeared once.  Thank goodness they’re focusing their efforts on the real culprit.

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52 Responses to “USDA Report: We Eat Less Fat, But Fat Is Killing Us”
  1. JRM says:

    I went to look at the study, but the link didn’t work. I assume they didn’t adjust the average calorie consumption figure for the difference in population age distribution between 1978 and 2008? It might completely or partially negate the 127 calorie/day difference. The US median age in 1980 was 30.0 and in 2010 was 37.2 (the closest years I could find: http://www.census.gov/prod/cen2010/briefs/c2010br-03.pdf figure 4) Portion of the population under 18 years old dropped from 28.1% to 24.0%.

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