How the American Diet Has Evolved Over the Past Century

How American Consumption Has Changed Since 1909

Certain statistics are glaring in the difference between American consumption now and one hundred years ago

Certain statistics are glaring in the difference between American consumption now and one hundred years ago.

This is one in a series of articles. For more on this subject visit The Daily Meal Special Report: Is Our Food Killing Us? Diet, Nutrition, and Health in 21st Century America.

It’s the turn of the 20th century, and you are a lower-middle class American living in a rural area. Chances are you eat cornmeal or rice day in and day out, with the occasional piece of dried meat to get you through the winter — because luxuries like fresh meat and vegetables are for the wealthy. (Those you grow are probably for sale, not for your own consumption.)

Thousands of Americans died of scurvy (vitamin C deficiency) and pellagra (vitamin B deficiency) in the early 20th century.  These days, scurvy and pellagra only exist in the pages of history books, and the importance of a balanced diet rich in vitamins and fresh vegetables has been drilled into our heads. The Daily Meal reported recently on the overabundance of food available in America — enough to feed everyone (in fact, we throw out almost one-third of the food we produce). But with a McDonald’s or Burger King around every corner, and processed foods being the cheapest and most widely available options to the general population, are we worse off than ever before?

“Our diet has become fattier and less starchy and vitamin deficiencies are rare because our diet is more diverse,” said Stephan Guyenet, obesity researcher and creator of the Whole Health Source blog. Instead, he says, we now have to worry about calorie over-consumption and obesity.

"Our diet is diverse enough," Guyenet adds, "But it’s filled with a lot of junk like fried foods, sweets, and overly-processed meals.”

Obviously, fast food and junk food are nothing new. McDonald’s has been around since the 1940s, and Burger King, which opened its first store in 1954, was not too far behind. Portion sizes were different back then, however. Your burger was likely to come out with only one thin patty and one slice of cheese, and a creation like the KFC Double Down was unheard of. In the mid-20th century, Coca-Cola was only available in six-ounce glass bottles, which seem minuscule in comparison with today’s Big Gulps and refills (average soda size, 42 ounces).

We’ve only recently started rebelling against the outlandish over-consumption of food with documentaries like 2004's Super-Size Me, and recent attempts by individual cities to place bans and taxes on junk food. In 2013, New York City’s Mayor Mike Bloomberg unsuccessfully attempted to eighty-six super-sized sodas, and Philadelphia has recently become the first major American city to institute a soda tax. The Food and Drug Administration is also looking to ban harmful "bad cholesterol"-inducing fats known as trans-fats widely used in processed foods.

Ironically, it used to be only the rich who could afford decadent foods laden with fat, and the poorer classes would just eat what they could afford. Now, according to Guyenet, organic produce and virtuous Whole Foods offerings are reserved for the middle and upper classes, while it’s still a lot easier (and cheaper) for lower-income families to have Kentucky Fried Chicken for dinner.

Regardless of income, the reality is that Americans as a whole are consuming a lot more food than we used to. According to Guyenet’s research, the daily caloric intake of the average American from 1909 to 2007 increased from 2,500 calories a day to 2,750. That might not sound like much of a difference, but it is when you consider that in 1909, a much higher percentage of the workforce had physically demanding occupations and needed high calorie counts to get through the day. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 38 percent of American laborers worked on farms at the turn of the 20th century. By 2009, that number had dwindled to less than three percent. In short: we eat more and burn fewer calories than we ever have in the past.

In just over a century, how did we go from a nation that didn’t even know what a vitamin was, where a large percentage of its people simply ate whatever they could find, to one that has experienced food overload? The answer, according to nutritional history experts, lies in the economics of food, and how our lifestyles have changed. According to Guyenet, at the beginning of the 20th century, people spent one-quarter of their disposable income on food, whereas today, they spend only 10 percent. "What sells? Something sugary and processed. Someone can just open a box of sweets and it’s instant yum, whereas in the past I would have to bake my sweet and it took some time."

It’s not that we’re eating less, adds Guyenet, but food has become much less expensive to produce with the advent of industrialization and mass production. It used to be that dinner time was an important daily event, but by 2010, less than half of American families sit down to dinner each day, and are more likely to graze on snacks or whatever is in front of them.

“In the past you didn’t have a choice about what you ate,” says food historian Rachel Laudan. ”The wealthy ate white flour and meat, and the lower classes ate cornbread and dried meat. Now everyone in America can afford bread, milk, and oil. You can choose what you eat. You can say, President Obama can eat a hamburger and so can I! In the past it wasn’t that simple.”

According to Laudan, once you democratize food consumption, food is produced as less of a necessity and more of a competitive commodity. Over the course of the 20th century, food became commercialized, and then companies began to turn to consumer tastes to see what they prefer. And how do you compete? As larger quantities of cheaper food is produced and marketed it aggressively, that’s where the quality of widely available food went down according to food historian and cookbook author Francine Segan — it’s far easier and maybe even tastier for consumers to buy McDonald’s or a pre-made meal than to buy the raw ingredients and cook themselves.

For instance, beef consumption rose steadily over the 20th century until its peak in 1976 when we were consuming almost 90 pounds of beef per person each year. Ever since the invention of frozen meals in 1949 and the rise of the TV dinner and pre-packaged meals in the latter half of the 20th century, we’re more likely to eat processed foods than pure meat these days.

“We can now provide food for more people at an economic cost, but there’s competition for that consumer dollar,” says Segan. “What sells? Something sugary and processed. Someone can just open a box of sweets and it’s instant yum, whereas in the past I would have to bake my sweet and it took some time, so I might not want to eat that all the time. People are so busy nowadays, but I wish instead of a quick fix frozen meal, I wish we could do 15 minutes of simple cooking.”

The American nutritional timeline ends with a gigantic question mark because truthfully, no one knows how we are going to reverse the rampant overeating epidemic that has taken over our nation. Segan and other authorities agree, however, that access to organic and healthy foods must be democratized. The American way used to mean equal access to a burger and french fries; now it should signify equal access to healthy, unprocessed foods.


Joanna Fantozzi is an Associate Editor with The Daily Meal. Follow her on Twitter @JoannaFantozzi