Where Americans Get Their Calories

      40 Comments on Where Americans Get Their Calories

Quick, somebody get the nine-year-old media hero and her mom on the phone.  Turns out that despite ads featuring cartoon characters and other means of “tricking” kids into eating at McDonald’s, very few of the total calories youngsters consume come from sodas and french fries consumed in fast-food restaurants.

That’s the good news.  The bad news is that people of all ages consume a lot of junk they buy in grocery stores – which is a point I’ve made several times.  The same people who like to heap blame on the fast-food industry are curiously silent about all the boxes of Cocoa Puffs and bags of potato chips sold in grocery stores.

In a study I read awhile back, researchers compared eating habits in areas with lots of fast-food restaurants and areas with almost no fast-food restaurants.  They found virtually no difference in how much sugar and other carbage people consume.  All that changes is where the sugar addicts go for their fix.  Blaming a McDonald’s restaurant for the sugar addicts who live nearby is like blaming a tavern for the local alcoholics.  Yes, sodas are cheap at McDonald’s … but if you want to see really cheap sodas, visit a Kroger.  (Then write a thank-you letter to the USDA for subsidizing corn and thus corn syrup.)

But I digress.

The figures about where Americans get their calories come from a new study published in Nutrition Journal.  Let’s look at some quotes about that study from an online article:

A new analysis of where Americans are getting their calories from has thrown up some surprising results, with the percentage of energy derived from so-called ‘junk-food’ such as soda, burgers and fries from fast-food chains proving to be somewhat lower than is often claimed.

Energy intakes of US children and adults by food purchase location and by specific food source, published in Nutrition Journal, is “the first-ever study of dietary energy intakes by age group, food purchase location and by specific food source”, claim its authors: Dr Adam Drewnowski and Dr Colin D Rehm from the University of Washington, Seattle.

As all foods consumed by participants in the government-run National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys (NHANES) are now color coded by location of purchase (eg. store, quick-service restaurant/pizza (QSR), full-service restaurant (FSR), school/workplace cafe, vending machine etc), it is possible to determine much more accurately where our calories are coming from, they explain.

The NHANES data is based on 24-hour recall.  I’m not a big fan of food questionnaires that ask people to remember what they ate for the past year or more, but I think most of us can recall what we ate yesterday.  The study’s authors note that people tend to under-report their junk-food intake, but I’m guessing that applies equally to fast-food junk and store-bought junk.  So let’s assume for the sake of argument that the figures are reasonably accurate when it comes to food eaten out vs. food eaten at home.

Quoting from the actual study:

Contrary to popular belief, restaurant-sourced pizza, burgers, chicken and French fries accounted for less energy than store-sourced breads, grain-based desserts, pasta and soft drinks.  For example, for adolescents in the 12-19y age group, QSR pizza accounted for 3.9% of total energy, whereas QSR French fried potatoes accounted for 1.7%. Interestingly, QSR sugar sweetened beverages provided 1.0-1.4% of dietary energy depending on age, whereas store-sourced beverages provided four times that.

So we’re looking at young people getting maybe 3% of their total calories from fast-food sodas and fries.  Toss in the burgers and we’re up to about 5%.  That would no doubt be a surprise to Roger Ebert and other people who believed Morgan Spurlock fingered the obesity-epidemic culprit in Super Size Me.

Fast-food consumption was highest among teens at about 17.5% of total calories.  But teens still consumed nearly two-thirds of their calories at home, as did people in other age groups.  But look at what they consume:

The top sources of energy for 6-11year-olds were grain-based desserts such as cakes, cookies, pies, pastries and donuts (6.9% of energy) and yeast breads (6.4% of energy). Those two food sources were among the top energy sources across all age groups.

Among adolescents, the top energy sources were soda, energy and sports drinks (8.2% of calories); pizza (7.2%); yeast breads (6.3%), and chicken and chicken mixed dishes (6.2%). Burgers contributed just 2% of energy and fries 2.7%.

Adults aged 20-50 derived 6.8% of energy from soda, energy and sports drinks; 6% from chicken and chicken mixed dishes; and 6.1% from yeast breads. 5.5% of energy came from grain-based desserts and 5.3% from alcoholic beverages.

Sounds like rather a lot of carbage.  The online version of the study includes some tables, so I took the data for ages 12-19 and popped it into Excel.  Then I marked the foods I consider carbage (sodas and energy drinks, pizza, pasta, fries, chips, donuts, cereals, breads, desserts and candy) and ran the numbers on those.

If the NHANES data is accurate, the nation’s teens are getting 47% of their calories from carbage — but only 9% of their total calories come from carbage consumed in fast-food restaurants.  Just over 32% of their total calories come from carbage they consume at home.  The remaining 6% of carbage-calories comes from full-service restaurants and “other” … whatever that means.

The same calculations for kids in the 6-11 group show that they consume slightly more carbage (49% of total calories) than their older siblings, but just 5.8% of their total calories come from fast-food carbage.  So I have to conclude that cartoon characters, Happy Meals and other “tricks” aren’t the reason kids get fat.  Kids consume five to six times more carbage at home than they do at fast-food restaurants.  Hannah’s mom is going to have to start writing speeches the little media hero can deliver at grocery-industry conventions.

The online article about the study also notes that while Hizzoner Mayor Bloomberg exempted grocery stores from his large-soda ban, that’s where people buy the vast majority of their soda.  There’s nothing I love more than a regulation that’s both onerous and ineffective.

Asked to comment on this interpretation of his data, co-author Dr Adam Drewnowski told FoodNavigator-USA: “Francis Collins and Griffin Rodgers (the director of the NIH and the NIDDK respectively) wrote in JAMA last  year that faced with the obesity epidemic, public health authorities took whatever action they could, without necessarily waiting for data to arrive.

Government officials jumping in with recommendations and regulations without waiting for data to support their actions? Well, I am shocked.


40 thoughts on “Where Americans Get Their Calories

  1. Chris

    Don’t disagree with anything you say (indeed, it would be interesting to compare calories from ‘fast food’ vs ‘acceptable restaurants’), but teens at 17.5% of calories from fast food – that seems extraordinary (as in ‘bad’). Thats at least 1 meal every 2 days from fast food.

    The other thing that stood out was the sports drinks/soda consumption. I mean, how easy would it be to simply stop drinking that stuff or at least go for diet versions.

    That sounds about right for teens. When I was in high school, I worked at a clothing store after school and on weekends and took my meal breaks at the local fast-food joints. My friends and I also tended to hit the fast-food joints while we were out and about.

    1. Lori

      It was actually pretty hard for me to give up Coke. I had a headache, mental fog and a stomach ache for a few days both times I quit. Two or three years later, I was visiting my mom and she said, “I thought you quit drinking Coke.” There was one in my hand–I just wasn’t thinking, I guess. It wasn’t the caffeine; I can switch from regular to decaf coffee at will. It wasn’t the sugar, either, since I didn’t have any of those problems when I gave my diet a radical carbectomy.

      When I was a kid, I might have had one meal a month from Burger King.

      1. Bevie

        Hah. Makes me think about how wretched I felt when I first tried to give the stuff up. I compared it to quitting smoking, but harder (maybe because cola is socially acceptable). I wonder what they put in it that makes it so obnoxiously habit forming? Like you, I do not have the same trouble with coffee, I have a ridiculous coffee habit at times, but I can just ignore it for days if I need to with no adverse effect.

        I can’t ignore my coffee habit, but coffee isn’t a health hazard.

        1. Jill

          Coke used to be made from cocaine. Think they still use it??? 😉

          They don’t, but they don’t have to, either. Sugar has similar effects.

    2. Julie

      Teens want to be independent, and that includes providing themselves with food. Unfortunately, in our society, the only opportunity for a teen to do that is at fast-food places. So it doesn’t surprise me at all that they eat almost 18% of their calories there.

      I suspect that’s been the case for a long time, at least since my youth.

      1. Justin B

        This was definitely the case with me. We rarely ever ate fast food or stopped at 7-11 for a slurpee, so when I got my driver’s license, I started skipping dinner at home with my parents for those 2 things. I probably had a large slurpee every night for the entire summer before college.

    3. Walter Bushell

      Most of the “acceptable” restaurants are no better even sit down restaurants with tablecloths may be serving boil in bag food.

      Except the real restaurants use butter.

      Plus sit-down restaurants serve bigger meals overall.

      1. Kristin

        My big concern with the mid-range restaurants is that they likely all use soybean oil. I just accept that it will be there once in a while when I do eat out. I still like to get a stir-fry or Thai curry once in a while. I’m more likely to just eat out more seldom and hit a really high end restaurant that will serve me greens cooked in butter, grass-fed beef, and extra virgin olive oil on my salad.

        I find it sort of amusing that these days my ‘junk’ food is an Asian stir fry with plenty of veg. Curse you, soybean oil!

        The last time we went to our local steakhouse, we took our own little Tupperware of Kerry Gold to spread on the steamed vegetables.

  2. Tami

    “Kids consume five to six times more carbage at home than they do at fast-food restaurants. ”

    So the take home message is eat out more?

    I hope not. I hope the take-home message is stop buying carbage and taking it home.

  3. Ash Simmonds

    Can confirm the tavern not being responsible for alcoholics part – I do most of my drinking at home.

    As for Roger Ebert being surprised – if that happens we’ve got bigger problems, like a zombie apocalypse.

    I’ve been watching “The Walking Dead” just in case.

  4. J. Stanton - gnolls.org

    It’s amazing what happens when we take the time to actually do research before setting public policy.

    First we find out that Southerners (and Southern food) aren’t to blame for obesity. Now we find out that far more junk food is purchased in the supermarket and eaten at home than in fast food restaurants!

    Maybe, in a few years, we will discover that neither junk food nor fast food was invented in 1980, which is when obesity in America began skyrocketing. And I give it at least a decade before we discover that Americans didn’t suddenly become gluttonous and lazy in 1980 — nor did food suddenly become “hyperpalatable” or “obesogenic”.


    And then just one more decade for those discoveries to sink into the minds of the obesity experts.

  5. Walter Bushell

    That “took whatever action they could, without necessarily waiting for data to arrive”, is especially galling to computer programmers, like “start coding and I’ll ask the customer what they want.”

    Thomas Sowell wrote in “Intellectuals and Society” that intellectuals are impressed by ideas that sound bold or original … and since the results of those bold, original ideas often don’t manifest for years or decades, they can get away with being bold and original instead of being effective. People who work in engineering or programming, by contrast, don’t much care how “bold” an idea is … if the program crashes, if the bridge falls down, it doesn’t matter how artfully you can explain why the idea should have worked.

    1. Lyndsey

      The thought of designing a storefront sign without regards to the client’s wishes make me shudder. It’s pure lunacy – you’d think more intellectuals would understand implementing an idea on a wide scale without all the information is generally a bad idea.

      Or in case of nutrition, potentially deadly….

      Intellectuals (whom Thomas Sowell distinguishes from highly intelligent people who don’t work in intellectual fields) tend to fall in love with their own ideas. And since they often believe they know what’s best for us, it’s easy for them to jump in with a bold, exciting solution.

  6. AndreaLynnette

    This is not a surprise to anyone who’s been paying attention. The scary part is how few people DO pay attention.

    I don’t have children myself, but I am around a lot of them, and what I see most often is the constant snacking. From the time they start on solid foods, the kids are given Gerber Graduates Puffs and Goldfish Crackers and Cheerios and on and on. My sister-in-law, who is TERRIFIED of fat and is a “health food” junkie, will not let my little niece eat red meat, but she will feed the kid as many refined heart-healthy-whole-grain-wheat, HFCS-sweetened, artificially-preserved snacks as the kid wants. OY. VEY.

    I’m horrified at what I see people putting in their grocery carts. What people eat a home is most of the problem.

    1. Linda

      Now, when I walk into my 10,000+ sq. ft. local supermarket, I often think, there is nothing to eat here. Aisles and aisles of toxic non-food, pesticide-laden vegetables from far away and meat inhumanely raised and full of toxins.

      As you say, however, most people don’t see it that way and fill their baskets to overflowing with crap that they feed to their children.

  7. Andrea

    “Blaming a McDonald’s restaurant for the sugar addicts who live nearby is
    like blaming a tavern for the local alcoholics.”

    Carrie Nation blamed taverns for alcoholics. And we all know how well Prohibition went.

    Yup. The Mafia has been eternally grateful for the prohibitionists giving them such a financial boost.

  8. Elenor

    “the first-ever study of dietary energy intakes by age group, food purchase location and by specific food source”, claim its authors: Dr Adam Drewnowski and Dr Colin D Rehm”

    Note word choice: the authors “claim” it. They don’t ‘say’ it or ‘write’ it or any other word that does NOT cast an “un-noticed” aspersion on their statement(s).

    If the journal writer agreed with them, wanna bet s/he would NOT have chosen that word? {sigh}

    Perhaps. Journalists often inject their opinions via word choice.

  9. Waldo

    Another excellent post Mr. Naughton. This makes sense for my family where I struggle but have made good progress to reduce carbage intake. I simple don’t buy much carbage, some but not much. Soda is hard one to regulate unless its just not in the pantry. When you purchase fast food through the drive through, when your soda is gone its gone. When you eat inside — folks re-fill their cups and leave. At home too many times the “family-size” bag of chips are opened and there’s unfettered chomping and when your soda is gone, you grab another, then maybe another. This post makes perfect sense to me and I love your tavern example.

    Not having junk in the house is key. When we go out for dinner, if our girls want to eat the dinner rolls or order macaroni and cheese, we let them. That’s maybe twice a month at most. At home, they can only eat what we’ve got available.

  10. Firebird

    SMH at the idea that a hamburger is “junk food”. Remove the bun and the HFCS ketchup and you have a rather healthy food item.

  11. LFM

    I think you’re right, but don’t go far enough. Perhaps you don’t go into supermarkets too much any more?

    Many parents rely on pre-made dishes like frozen breaded chicken (is that what “chicken mixed dishes” means?), frozen pasta dishes with meant and veggies alredy added, Uncle Ben’s rice, and so forth, stuff that can be made quickly when hungry children who are also picky eaters sit around the table demanding to be fed.

    So I agree the culprit is carbs, but a special kind of carbs that are always available, require no thought or prep time, and are full of preservatives and added sugar.

    Frozen pre-made foods can be bought in large quantities, often on sale, without fear that they’ll go bad in a few days. It’s easy to stock up on them, and if someone says, “More pasta, Dad!” it’s easy to get another bag/box out of the freezer and heat it. The parent doesn’t have to get up and peel a dozen more potatoes, or even cook another pot of pasta and make sauce for it. (Besides, there’s lots of pre-made sauces, also full of preservatives and sugar.)

    Add that to all the other pressures on children – coming home to an empty house, worrying about grades, peer pressure, and so on – and it’s no wonder they’re more inclined to get fat. I don’t know if peer pressure is worse than it used to be (probably not), but it seems to be more dangerous/ violent today. Grade pressure is definitely much higher than in the 1970s. They eat for comfort, poor critters.

    No, I go to supermarkets. I didn’t want to make assumptions about how much of the “chicken mixed dishes” and “mixed beef dishes” might be added carbage, so I stuck with the pure carbage foods.

  12. Ricardão

    Carbage….I see what you did there — Ham Bone

    After reading that word in a few articles, I just realized Tom wasn’t using it to describe a hooptie…pretty clever!

  13. LFM

    Without making assumptions about “chicken mixed dishes,” I think I must be right about the prepared foods. I mean, it’s hard to put a finger on how many more/fewer calories we eat now, or how much more fast food burgers and fries, or even how much more carbs or obvious junk food like potato chips we eat.

    But there is one thing I’m sure of, and that is the explosion in the quantity and variety of pre-made meals since the 1980s, so that whole aisles are devoted to frozen meals of one kind or another when they used to occupy about a single shelf in the freezer section in the 1970s. And they proliferated at about the time that everyone began to get fat. Coincidence? I think not….

    (I’m teasing, but only partly.)

    Sure, people rely on processed and pre-packaged foods much more now than, say, 40 years ago. Dr. Eric Oliver talked about that in Fat Head.

  14. Josh

    This makes perfect sense to me. When at the fast-food joint, before one eats, one must pay money (or have a friend who gives it to you for free and risks getting fired). At home, not only is a bag of potato chips or pretzels only a couple of dollars at the store, but it is easy to eat an entire bag in one or two nights. If people had vending machines at home and had to pay before eating, they might now eat so much (here’s hoping that a bureaucrat didn’t just read that). I like snacking on nuts, and I know I have gone through a bag of cashews a lot faster than I should have.

    People can also eat an entire “party size” bag of chips at home without anyone watching.

  15. lina

    did you hear ECEOES response to your movie? he’s on youtube and his voice is scary,lol. not a vegetarian anymore, eventhough i hate wheat, i ate pretty good and was not overveight but i got tired of beans,lol. i had organic bacon this morning and OMG was gooodddddd! a Romanian fan!

    I don’t read/watch reviews and video replies. I don’t see the point.

  16. kla

    Did the authors differentiate between government school provided food and those eaten at home? Just curious how much institutions are helping teenagers with getting their daily carbage? I know when I was in school, starch and sugar were king.

    There were some figures on calories consumed at school.

  17. Firebird

    I went to the store today to purchase a ready made salad. I normally get the chef salad, until I read that the ingredients in the chicken (yes…ingredients in chicken) include hydrolized soy protein and artificial chicken flavor (Yes, they added artificial chicken flavor…to chicken).

    Never again.

  18. AG

    When you stop and think about your average grocery store, it’s quite amazing that they have WHOLE aisles dedicated to just chips and soda, or cookies and crackers… I mean… how odd is it that you can say “let’s go to the cookie aisle…”

    I think that is a problem! Haha…

    Yee-up. Seems like half the aisles in a typical grocery store are for bags, bottles and boxes of refined carbohydrates.

  19. johnny

    A Fascist regime (Hitler) creates an enemy (Jews) – i.e. McDonalds – to blame for its failures.

    It’s a tried and true technique.

  20. robert

    I wonder when supermarkets will start selling those bigger boxes too. Cradle to grave service. Maybe you’d get a discount when having bought enough of the smaller boxes before requiring the bigger one.

    They should go with a punch-card system like the video stores used to offer. After you get your Cocoa Puffs card punched 1,000 times, you get a free casket.

    1. Walter Bushell

      Making a joke about a grave subject here I see. But caskets are expensive. If I understand the funeral business, you coffin determines the rest of the funeral, more expensive the coffin the more fancier the funeral.

      Maybe a glucometer would be more appropriate.

  21. Kate

    I find it ironic that I read this post eating chicken livers and zucchini patties made from ingredients from the local grocery store.

    I’m not surprised that kids get a huge percentage of calories from carbage. I’m not sure I’ve seen a friend’s kids ever eat real food. It’s all been over processed junk. When I was young, mom cooked at home all the time and I never developed a taste for most of those (disgusting) premade frozen meals. Today some kids are never exposed to food, what will their lives be like when they’re older?

    Their lives will be full of illnesses, unfortunately.

    1. Walter Bushell

      And infertility will rise to unprecedented percentages. About the second generation raised on industrial waste and crud. In animal experiments sometimes reproductive failures take generations to manifest.

      And, naturally, it will not only be physical illness, but what we think of as mental illness will plague the population.

  22. Leon

    This is something that makes sense to me, on my bike ride home after work I pass by a supermarket and Macca’s (Aussie here), and it’s so much easier to buy junk food on the cheap at the supermarket; it’s quieter, the self-service alleviates the guilt, and there’s a wider selection.

    Fast food restaurants are outclassed in this convenience. I don’t splurge anymore, but when I was depressed the supermarkets were too easy.

    I had to do a double take on ”carbage” by the way, excellent pun.

    I believe I picked up that word from Jimmy Moore.

  23. Jill

    Govt officials not waiting for data?

    That’s what the McGovern people did with the low fat schemozzle to begin with!!

    Does nothing ever change ever?? Are we always going to live in a rerun?


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