A Graphic Glimpse Into the Way America’s Diet Has Changed Since 1970

No, it’s not graphic in that sense — one man has cleverly used graphs to track American food consumption
cracking american egg


Nathan Yau has cracked open America's dietary history, and you may be surprised by its lack of eggs.

Nathan Yau, a statistician with his PhD (in, believe it or not, statistics) from UCLA, says making data available and useful for non-professionals is one of his main focuses. His most recent way of doing this came in the form of The Changing American Diet, in which Yau show’s what Americans ate on an average day for the past several decades.

Click here for 6 Surprising Food Facts About America’s Founding Fathers.

From 1971 to 2013, Yau has created graphs in six food-based categories: meat, vegetables, fruit, grains, dairy, and fat. Using the United States Department of Agriculture’s Food Availability Data System, he was able to pick the most popular foods in each category and show how American consumption of each changed over the 42 year span.

Yau’s system has illustrated some interesting changes, one of which he notes quite humorously:

“And how about chicken with the come-from-behind victory? In 1970, people consumed more than twice as much beef [as] chicken, but by 1987 it surpassed pork, and in 2004 moved passed [sic] beef. Chicken has been on top since. You go, chicken.”

Other highlights include the fact that cooking oil has reigned supreme over butter, margarine, shortening, lard, and other miscellaneous fats over the years. Apples have always been our favorite fruit, and wheat flour has always been a clear winner in the grains category. Avocado, a food that seems to have become unstoppably popular over the past few years, barely registers as a tiny blip on The Changing American Diet’s radar.

Dark, leafy greens (think of spinach, broccoli, and every other trendy, nutritious salad green here) were barely registerable as an American food source until the mid-1980s. Since then, leafy greens have steadily gained more popularity, but potatoes have consistently taken the crown as the most popular American vegetable since 1971. There seems to have been a fairly sudden, sharp increase in carrot consumption as well. 

“In 1991, the average daily consumption [of carrots] was 0.05 cups,” says Yau, “and that increased by more than 60 percent during a three-year period. This by the way was around the time baby carrots came into vogue.” Ahh, right. Baby carrots rule!

Whole milk, a clear favorite amongst dairy throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s, was surpassed by American cheese in 1995. In fact, between 1971 and 2013, whole milk declined in popularity a total of 79 percent. While almond milk, quinoa milk, and the new milk made from peas weren’t included in Yau’s work, it’d be interesting to see their (probable) spike in popularity over the past decade.

The accompanying slideshow is provided by Rio Fernandes.

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