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Washington Post

Caloric rise made worse by content

Blame fast food, processed food, refined grains …

If you took a little bit of dairy, added a slightly larger serving of vegetables, fruits and proteins, then piled on as many superfluous oils, fats and grains as possible, you’d have a reasonably accurate picture of the modern American diet.

Americans on average eat nearly 2,600 calories a day, almost 500 more than they did 30 years ago, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which uses food production data, along with spoilage and waste estimates, to approximate per capita consumption.

That increase alone should be enough to raise an eyebrow, but what’s most troubling isn’t the increase in the caloric intake so much as its makeup.

More than 92 percent of the uptick in per capita caloric intake since 1970 is attributable to oils, fats and grains.

Thirty years ago, the combination was responsible for roughly 37 percent of daily calories; today it makes up closer to 47 percent of U.S. diets.

Oils, fats and grains aren’t inherently bad. In fact, there’s good reason to believe many fats and oils are actually just the opposite.

And grains, despite a growing narrative about their potential harms, come in all shapes and sizes – some are protein-rich, such as quinoa, while others offer little or no nutritional value, such as enriched white flour.

The two food groups Americans are eating more and more of – added fats and oils, and flour and cereal products – are the same ones that are found in most processed and fast foods.

“It’s hard to pinpoint why exactly it’s increased,” said Jeanine Bentley, the social science analyst responsible for the USDA’s food availability database. “But it probably comes from an increase in processed and fast foods.”

A 2013 study by USDA’s Economic Research Service seems to confirm her suspicion. Fast food is a much more integral part of the American diet than it was in the 1970s.

Between 1977 and 1978, fast food accounted for just more than 3 percent of calories in the U.S. diet; between 2005 and 2008, that share skyrocketed to over 13 percent.

Americans are also spending almost three times the recommended amount on refined grains, and many times more than the recommended amount on frozen and refrigerated entrees, according to the same study.

The sum of all those calories is an ever-expanding American waistline.

Americans age 20 and older are now almost three times as likely to be obese as they were only 30 years ago – the increase is enough to afford the U.S. the unenviable distinction of being the most obese major country in the world.

It’s more than merely a health conundrum; it’s a full-fledged economic one, too. As of 2008, the annual medical costs alone amounted to almost $150 billion, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.