New evidence suggests Americans are shaving off calories and improving their diets.
Adults cut their calories by almost 100 a day between 2005 and 2010, mainly because they consumed fewer calories from fast-food places and other restaurants, according to a new analysis from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
They are consuming slightly less saturated (animal) fat and a bit more fiber, the study shows. And families say they began eating more meals together during that time period, and more of those meals were home-cooked.
There were improvements in the quality of food that was prepared at home and away from home, says study author Jessica Todd, a research economist with the USDA's Economic Research Service. These changes may be "a silver lining" of the 2007-09 recession, "because the recession likely left people with more time to choose healthier foods and to prepare more meals at home."
Harry Balzer, chief industry analyst for the NPD Group, a market research firm that tracks eating trends, says during this time period, many people experienced a drop in income, and people lower their food costs by using restaurants less because restaurant meals cost three times more than meals made at home. NPD research shows that Americans are using restaurants less and eating more meals at home, he says.
"It's definitely encouraging that this analysis finds calories are trending downward since that's exactly what we need to curb the epidemic of obesity," says Dawn Jackson Blatner, a registered dietitian in Chicago who wasn't involved in the analysis. "It's also great news that family meals are on the rise. A healthy family doesn't just eat nutritious foods, they also eat together around the table.
"We have more control over ingredient quality and portions when we cook at home. More home-cooked meals is one trend that I'd like to see go viral."
The findings come at a time when the obesity epidemic is believed to be leveling off after several decades of skyrocketing growth. In 2012, about 34.9% of the people in the USA were obese, which is roughly 35 pounds over a healthy weight. That is not significantly different from the 35.7% in 2010 or 32% in 2004.
The new analysis is based on interviews with almost 10,000 working-age adults (born between 1946 and 1985) from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. Food and beverage habits are based on in-person interviews about dietary habits. The time period includes the recession. Findings:
• Adults consumed an average of 78 fewer calories a day between 2005 and 2010. That represents a drop from 2,328 calories a day in 2005 to 2,250 in 2010.
• They consumed 127 fewer calories a day in food prepared outside the home, including restaurant fare, fast food and takeout during that period. Food away from home comprised 30% of total calories in 2010 down from 35% of total calories in 2005.
• Adults consumed 53 fewer calories a day from fast-food places.
• Saturated fat intake dropped from 11.3% of total calories to 10.6%; fiber increased from 16.1 grams a day to 17.3.
• Family meals in households with children increased from 5.8 meals a week to 6.29 a week.
• Adults showed more interest in nutrition information including in the Nutrition Facts Panel on products as well as health claims on packages between 2007 and 2010.