Snacking More and Skipping Lunch: How US Diets Have Changed

As more people pick and snack their way through the day, instead of sitting down for three square meals, the amount of energy Americans get from their snacks has doubled in the last 30 years. This is according to an analysis of National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys (NHANES) data, which revealed that the percentage of energy derived from snacks in the American diet has increased from 12% in the late 1970s to 24% in 2009/10.

According to lead researcher Alanna Moshfegh, of the USDA’s agricultural research service, the average number of eating occasions per day is now 5.6 – up from 3.9 in the late ‘70s. Speaking at an event hosted by the Peanut Institute in Napa Valley earlier this month, she noted, ‘In the late 1970s, 40% of Americans said they had eaten no snacks the previous day.’ However, three decades on this number dropped to just 4%, and 56% respondents reported having at least three snacks every day.

And it’s not just that Americans are snacking more; they’re starting earlier. 32% of children between the ages of one and two now regularly snack on crisps, popcorn or pretzels, and 19% regularly consume sweets. In adults, pizza consumption has risen from a mere 3% in 1977/78, to 10% in 2007/8. However, the difference is even more pronounced in US kids, with 6% of young people (aged two to 19 years) eating pizza the day before in 1977/78, and 20% eating pizza the previous day in 2007/8.

Another striking difference in American dietary wellness is that they are now more likely to skip lunch than breakfast. 85% of those surveyed revealed that they had eaten breakfast the previous day, but only 80% reported eating lunch. And what are these meals made up of? Since the late 1970s, American consumption of fat has, contrary to what you might assume, gone down, while protein consumption has remained fairly steady.

However, carbohydrate intake has increased, which may partially explain why obesity levels have risen also. When it came to their five-a-day, Americans seem to have dropped the ball on veggies. In the late ’70s, US consumption of vegetables (including French fries) was an average of 2.6 portions a day. Now, however, this number has dropped to just 1.9 portions. 12% of Americans in surveyed three decades ago hadn’t eaten fruit or vegetables the day before, and this number has since more than doubled to a worrying 25%.

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