Why it's hard to eat well and be active in America today

Food is abundant in the United States. There are 3,800 calories available in the food supply for each person each day. However, the average American adult who’s physically active needs about 2,000 calories per day.

American adults and children eat a third of their calories at restaurants and other food-service establishments, considerably more than 20 years ago. Restaurant portion sizes are huge—about 2 to 3 times larger than food labels list as a serving. Studies link eating out with obesity and higher calorie intakes and show that when people eat out, they consume more saturated fat and fewer fruits and vegetables than when they eat at home. Children eat almost twice as many calories when they eat a meal at a restaurant compared to a typical meal at home.

illustration of fast food restaurant
Few restaurants provide nutrition information at the point of decision-making. As a result, people often consume more calories than they realize. For example, a large chocolate shake at McDonald’s has more calories than two Big Macs. Even well-educated nutrition professionals tend to underestimate the amount of fat and calories in restaurant foods. Over the next year (by December 2015), that will change as chain restaurants are required to provide calorie labeling on menus. But people will still be left in the dark at other restaurants.

And, people are bombarded with messages to eat. Unfortunately, most of those messages come from the food industry, not health professionals. At the national, state, and local level, we underfund public health, while the food industry spends $33 billion a year to promote mostly fatty, salty, high-calorie, low-nutrition foods. Only 2% of food advertising is for fruits, vegetables, grains, and beans, combined. 90% of the ads on Saturday morning television are for foods and beverages high in fats, salt, or added sugars, like sugary cereals, fast food, and junky snack foods.

In addition, food companies use images, claims, and design on packaging and add fat, sugar, and salt, colors, shapes, or other qualities to make the product more enticing to market it to customers. Retailers employ low prices and sales to encourage purchases. And working together, food manufacturers and retailers use the placement of foods and beverages at customers’ eye level, especially in places where customers have to pass or stop, such as the end of aisles or the checkout, to prompt people to buy foods that they had not planned to buy and may not need.

Soft drinks are the single biggest source of calories in Americans’ diet. Increases in children’s calorie intake during the 1990’s were driven by increased intakes of foods and beverages high in added sugars. Soft drinks are sold everywhere. And, soft drink portion sizes have greatly increased. In the 1950s, a bottle of Coke was 6 ½ ounces. Now, it’s most commonly 20 ounces—that means that instead of getting 80 calories from a bottle of Coke, people now get 250 calories.

Children who consume more soft drinks consume more calories than kids who drink fewer soft drinks and are more likely to become overweight. Consumption of soft drinks can displace healthier foods from children’s diets, like low-fat milk, which could help prevent osteoporosis.

gas station convenience storeModern conveniences like remote controls, elevators, car washes, washing machines, leaf blowers, and drive-through windows at fast-food restaurants all mean less physical activity. The Dallas Morning News tallied up the number of calories a person could burn if he replaced several “convenient” activities, such as driving through a “drive-through” window, with their more active counterparts, such as walking into the store. Together, they added up to 8,800 calories worth of missed physical activity opportunities each month, or the amount of activity needed to burn off 2.5 pounds of fat.

Americans are not getting the nutrition education needed to maintain a healthy diet and healthy weight in a complex food environment. Funding for nutrition education pales in comparison to what the food industry spends advertising unhealthy foods. Federal funding to promote nutrition and physical activity also lags far behind funding to prevent tobacco use.

Physical education (PE) in schools, which gives kids a chance to be physically active now and teaches them the skills they need for a lifetime of physical activity, is too infrequent. Only a quarter of high school students participate in daily PE, down from 42% in 1991. Half of high school students are not enrolled in PE at all.

Given all the forces working against Americans’ attempts to maintain a healthy diet and weight, we need to work with Congress, the Administration, state and local policymakers, and food, beverage, and entertainment companies to:

  1. continue to improve school foods and remove unhealthy food marketing from schools,
  2. stop junk food marketing to children,
  3. remove candy, soda, and other junk food from retail checkout,
  4. reduce the ubiquity and promotion of soda and other sugary beverages,
  5. promote healthier options through vending, cafeterias, and other food service venues on state and local public property,
  6. improve the nutritional quality of restaurant kids meals,
  7. increase physical activity and healthy food options in childcare settings,
  8. reduce sodium and remove trans fat from the food supply, and
  9. increase the budget of the CDC’s Division of Nutrition, Physical Activity and Obesity.

Education must be supported by policy changes that make it easier for people to eat better and be active. No one policy will solve the problem. However, a combination of policy approaches would help.

By Margo Wootan, Director of Nutrition Policy, Center for Science in the Public Interest

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