A recent study by Roland Sturm and Ruopeng An argue that the key element behind Americans getting heavier is the fact that food is too cheap. The two reviewed government data over several decades to see how much Americans spent on food. They found that Americans currently spend less than 10% of their disposable income on food, yet with that 10%, they are able to buy more food than families in previous decades (The percentage does vary depending on income group. The poorest 20% of Americans spend far more on food — close to 33% of their disposable income). In the 1950’s American families spent 20% of their income on food, and families in the 1930’s spent 25% of their income on food. The study found Americans are able to spend a smaller percentage of their income on food than families in any other nation in the world, and they still get more food for that amount.
While one of the main factors is that food is less expensive, the effect is compounded by the fact that it’s much easier to buy and prepare food today than it was in past decades. The result of being able to purchase a wider variety of easily prepared cheap food results in Americans increasing their caloric intake. According to the Department of Agriculture, the average American consumed 2,109 calories in 1970. In 2010, that amount had risen to 2,568 calories. In other words, an American today eats the equivalent of an extra McDonald’s double cheeseburger every day, 365 days a year, than he did 35 years ago.
Another part the problem is that we are able to eat a lot faster than we have in the past. Far more people choose to go for quantity over quality today. It’s a lot easier and less time consuming to buy food at a restaurant, or to pick up premade meals, than to prepare an entire meal from scratch. Since Americans have such easy access to ready-made foods which don’t cost a lot, it’s much easier for them to consume greater amounts of calories without breaking their budget.
This leads to some surprising findings. Since Americans have access to a wider variety of foods, studies have found they are eating more fresh produce and getting more exercise, but they are still getting fatter. The authors conclude the standard advice to lose weight by getting more exercise and eating more produce won’t solve the problem by itself. Americans are already doing that. Unfortunately, they’re also consuming more food while doing it. For those who really want to lose weight, there needs to be a lifestyle change rather than simply an addition of more exercise and eating more of certain foods.
(Photo courtesy of Tony Alter)