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American Eating Habits Have Changed--Not Necessarily for the Better : Consumption of Calories, Snack Foods and Supplements Rises

December 11, 1986|ROSE DOSTI | Times Staff Writer

A recent food consumption study released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture reveals that Americans' consumption of meat has decreased since 1977, whereas soft drink and snack consumption has skyrocketed. People are not only eating more calories but also taking vitamin supplements. And if you are guessing that family mealtime is fast becoming a thing of the past, you are correct.

The telling results of the 1985 National Continuing Survey of Food Intakes by Individuals were reported at a recent food writers conference by Suzanne S. Harris, deputy assistant secretary for food and consumer services for the USDA.

Recall Diet

The survey statistics were gathered from 19- to 50-year-old females and males and children 1 to 5 years old, who were asked to recall the previous day's diet every six months since 1977, when a similar survey was performed.

The data collected both in a 1977 survey and the recently released version included descriptions of food and beverage eaten, the quantity eaten, the source of the food, the occasion of eating and time of day.

The survey addresses only the question of what was eaten, not why it was eaten. "We can only speculate at the point," Harris said. "Generally, food consumption behavior is changing faster than ever before since diets were first monitored through national surveys in the mid-1930s. Many factors contribute to these changes, but the concern about nutrition appears to be an important one." Harris thinks that efforts of major health organizations, including the U.S. health organizations that released Dietary Guidelines between the surveys, as well as the American Heart Assn., among others, have dramatically helped shape the health consciousness of Americans in the last 10 years. These concerns are reflected in the results of the survey. Also reflected in the survey are contradictory evidences of health neglect and overeating.

As for home eating patterns, they are changing, too, with less and less family dining being done at home. The 1985 survey found that 57% of women obtained and ate some food away from home on each day surveyed, up from 45% in 1977. Young children ate out more in 1985, too. However, the survey shows that the nutrient intake of outside eating was not adversely affected. In fact, the food eaten away from home was similar, nutritionally, to the food eaten at home.

Near the Bottom

Here are the results of the surveys on what Americans are eating relative to the Dietary Guidelines published jointly in 1985 by the USDA and Health and Human Services Department. The guidelines call for all Americans to eat a variety of foods, to avoid too much fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, sugar and salt and to eat foods with adequate starch and fiber. They also call for moderating alcohol consumption.

Calorie intakes reported by women in the survey were near the bottom of the range of calorie intakes suggested by the Recommended Dietary Allowances in 1980, but it contradicts the rising incidences of obesity among American women.

"This low level is hard to reconcile with the prevalence of overweight women observed in other studies. We think the women in the survey may not have reported all they ate and drank, especially of alcoholic beverages," Harris said.

The variety of foods selected in 1985, especially by women, did not provide recommended amounts of several nutrients. Although diets were no worse than in 1977, little improvement was noticed, with the possible exception of calcium.

High Calorie Intake

Compared with 1977, intakes in 1985 for both women and children were as high or higher for calories, protein and all vitamins and minerals studied, with calcium showing the greatest gain in intakes by women--from 69% to 78% of the RDA.

Women's average nutrient intakes in 1985 were above the RDA for eight nutrients: protein, Vitamin A, thiamine, riboflavin, niacin, Vitamin B-12, ascorbic acid (Vitamin C) and phosphorus. Intakes below the RDA were for Vitamin B-6, folacin, Vitamin E, calcium, iron, magnesium and zinc. Even though intakes of certain vitamins and minerals were not up to par with the RDAs, they are not necessarily inadequate, because the RDAs are set above the needs of most people, according to Harris.

"Intakes increased for folacin, Vitamin B-6, magnesium and calcium, but not for zinc and iron within the high-income groups. The lack of increase for zinc and iron reflects, in part, the lower meat intake by high-, rather than low-income women in 1985--an interesting twist in the 1985 survey results," Harris said.

Men, however, did not suffer shortages in iron or zinc because they ate more food (2,569 calories for men versus 1,660 calories for women) and because their RDA for vitamins and minerals are about the same or lower than the RDA for women.

Shift to Low-Fat Milk

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