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Big Sister Is Watching What You Eat


Judy Putnam knows what you've been eating.

She knows that you love pizza more than ever; that you've switched to low-fat or skim milk, but you're still guzzling those soft drinks; that you're eating more fresh fruit and less beef, but you can't pass up sweets.

She even knows that you're eating more prunes than usual, but she's too polite to inquire why.

How does she know all this?

For 25 years, Putnam has been a U.S. Department of Agriculture researcher, first tracking Americans' attitudes about their diet and now keeping an eye on what the country is actually consuming.

From her cubicle at the USDA Economic Research Service in downtown Washington, Putnam and her trusty computer have released figures that show how food consumption in the United States has changed dramatically in the last 20 years.

Her report contains some news that will make nutrition experts happy, and some that will make them pull their hair in frustration. Either way, it doesn't surprise Putnam.

"For 25 years, I've been looking at how people are changing their diets for health reasons. In areas where we can eat more, we do well. Where we have to cut back, we have problems," she says.

She means that nutritionists have urged us to eat more fresh fruits and vegetables--and that we've done it. As for sugars and fats, which we're constantly being warned to stay away from, no one's paying a whole lot of attention, judging by her latest data.

But before we get to the specific figures, Putnam makes a few cautionary comments.

"These figures are only estimates," she stresses, smoothing the cover of her newest report before she hands it over. The way the USDA comes up with the numbers is to take a commodity--corn, for example--and figure out how much of it is produced. Subtracted from this number is the amount that goes into industrial uses, farm-animal feed and exports. What's left over is assumed to be the amount that Americans eat.

This is not always accurate, Putnam notes. The amount of poultry that Americans supposedly eat, for instance, also includes the amount of chicken and turkey parts that go into pet food. And the figures for fats and oils includes the ever-increasing amount of oil being used by restaurants for frying up our favorite burgers, nuggets and French fries. We're not actually consuming all that oil, although it is being used to feed our demand for fried fast food.

Still, these are the most accurate figures available for tracking the trends in what Americans are eating.

What Putnam has found in looking at data spanning 1970 to 1990 is that Americans are consuming more food per capita than ever. "If we keep this up, we're going to be blimps by the year 2000," she says with a laugh.

She's also found that our diets have shifted away from having meat or animal products as the main dish. Instead we're mixing our meat with vegetables, fruits, nuts and grains.

In fact, our consumption of plant-based foods has far outpaced animal products, especially in the last five years. In the 1970s, meat, chicken, pork and eggs made up the bulk of our diets. By the end of the decade, crop-based foods such as cereals, flour, fruits, vegetables, nuts and vegetable oil had begun to rise, and since 1984 they have dominated what we eat.

USDA figures show that per-capita consumption of crop products soared 16% in the past 20 years, while consumption of animal products rose less than 1%.

Going along with this general trend is the fact that, in 1990, Americans cut back on high-fat food sources such as red meat, eggs, whole milk, butter and lard and ate more low-fat foods such as poultry, fish and shellfish, fresh fruits and vegetables, grains and low-fat milk products.

However, before we pat ourselves on the back too much, Putnam also has some bad news.

Despite the growing popularity of low-calorie sweeteners, Americans refuse to give up their sugar.

Consumption of all kinds of calorie-laden sweeteners increased by 15 pounds per person between 1970 and 1990. Our use of corn sweeteners nearly quadrupled during the same period--most of it due to the skyrocketing use of soft drinks.

Although corn syrup has replaced sugar in soft drinks, consumption of refined sugar has increased by four pounds per person since 1986 because of our love of bakery treats and sweet cereals. In fact, the bakery and cereal industry has become the largest industrial user of sugar. It alone accounts for 20% of total sugar use for food and beverages, up from 14% in 1980.

And then there's the subject of how much fat we're eating.

"Americans didn't quite get the message," observes Judith Solberg, public-health nutrition director with the Iowa Department of Public Health. "They knew they were supposed to decrease their saturated fat, so they just started using more vegetable oil. They don't understand that they need to decrease the entire (amount of) fat in their diet."

Indeed, Americans have cut back on saturated fat from products such as lard, butter, whole milk and red meat because of what Dr. C. Wayne Callaway at George Washington University calls "the cholesterol witch hunt," which tried to pin all the blame for heart disease on this one factor.

Unfortunately, Americans have replaced the animal fat with vegetable fat, consuming much more vegetable fat and oil in the form of fried foods and salad dressings. They're also increasing their use of cream, sour cream and cheese, which are generally higher in fat.

Even with our cutbacks in animal fats, Putnam says, the amount of calories we get from fat in our daily diets has been steadily increasing. At the turn of the century, "we got 32% of our calories from fat," just about what the American Heart Assn. recommends. "Today it's at 43%."

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