Last updated on April 13th, 2017
Do we eat more because we eat more often? Yes, says a study that claims Americans eat 570 more calories per day now than they did 30 years ago because they are eating all of the time.
The study’s lead author, Professor Barry Popkin of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, told CNN Health that “the real reason we seem to be eating more (calories) is we’re eating often.” But is eating frequency all there is to it, or does what a person eats make a difference?
To say we are eating more because we eat more often simply raises the question of why we indulge between meals. Is it just that we need to be doing something with our hands and mouths? (There are other possibilites!) Or is it that we are experiencing more hunger between meals than we used to?
The key question is, why are we snacking more in the first place?
Early news reports of the study focus on constant snacking as the cause of increased caloric intake (and by extension, of increased obesity). For example, consider these titles:
To be fair to Professor Popkin and his team, I haven’t yet read the original study. And I like how he mentions that sugary drinks consumed as snacks are a big part of the problem. He also uses another telling example. He says that we used to get by with unsweetened tea or coffee as snacks, but these days we are apt to be reaching into a big bag of Doritos even while we drive.
Yes, we snack more than ever
I don’t know if it’s true that three decades ago, Americans limited their snacks to tea and coffee. I remember the 1970s. Potato chips were popular then. So were pop corn, ice cream, Pepsi, Coke, and cookies. However, it does seem plausible to me that Americans snack more today than they used to, and that when they snack, they eat carb-dense treats like, say, Doritos (and Pepsi, Coke and cookies).
Now, assuming that Americans are snacking more and consuming on average 570 calories a day more than they did 30 years ago, what could be the reason? The news articles seem to blame a “snack culture,” which perhaps is the result of mass-market advertising and the expansion of fast-food outlets. In other words, Big Business did this to us.
Hungry people eat
I have no problem bashing Big Business, but I have a simpler explanation. Americans are eating more today because they are hungrier.
If they can get a hold of food, hungry people will eat. It’s as simple as that.
That perfectly describes my own situation before I started eating low-carb. I was constantly hungry, even ravenous. So I constantly ate.
Carb intake is up
You know I’m going to blame carbs, so let’s get to it.
Consider that in the 1970s the U.S. government endorsed a low-fat, high-carb diet. Hundreds of millions of dollars were spent trying to convince the American people to reduce their consumption of “fatty” foods like eggs, whole milk, red meat and lard, and to increase their consumption of “lean” foods like poultry, fish, and grains.
Judging from food consumption data, the propaganda effort mostly worked. From 1980 to 2008, the U.S. per capita consumption of eggs dropped 8.9%, whole milk 64%, red meat 14.6% and lard 56.5%. Over that same span, the U.S. per capita consumption of poultry increased 77.9%, fish 29%, and flour/cereal products 35.6%. (I calculated these percentages from data in Table 213. U.S. Census Bureau, Statistical Abstract of the United States: 2011.)
Granted, there is no way to be sure that our eating preferences changed because of the actions the government and its allies in the medical establishment, but as a tax-payer, I like to think the government has its moments and isn’t just throwing away all that money it collects. In this case, since the government’s low-fat, high-carb crusade was so wrong-headed, it was, in a cynical light, almost guaranteed to work.
Eating more chicken and fish probably didn’t hurt our waistlines much, though in my experience, a lot of the chicken and fish we eat is breaded. That means extra carbs and extra calories both. The thing that probably hurt was the increase in flour/ cereal consumption (wheat, rice, corn and oats). However, we also need to remember caloric sweeteners, such as sugar and high-fructose corn syrup; their U.S. per capita consumption increased from 120 pounds in 1980 to 136 pounds in 2008 (+13.3%). (The 1980 number does undermine the professor’s contention that we were a nation of unsweetened tea drinkers in the 1970s.)
Here is expert opinion on the matter from the journal Nutrition (In the face of contradictory evidence, October 2010):
Americans are consuming more calories than in the past, but the increase has not been equally distributed across food groups. The increase in calories in the American diet over the previous 30 y is primarily due to carbohydrate intake. . . . Average daily calories from meat, eggs, and nuts have increased by about 20 cal since 1970 as average daily calories from flour and cereal products have increased by nearly 10 times that amount. . . . In short, the macronutrient content of the diet has shifted in the direction recommended since the 1977 dietary goals.
The data suggest that the average American is eating more carbohydrates now than 30 years ago. That is in-line with the new study’s claim that we are snacking more since the typical commercial snacks are likely to contain sugar or starch or both. Few have just protein and fat, or even mostly protein and fat without carbs.
If you sent someone to McDonald’s to buy a “snack,” and didn’t tell them what kind of food to buy, would they be more likely to return with a bun-less burger or a bag of fries? If you sent them to Little Caesar’s, would they come back with slices of pepperoni or of pizza pie?
Carbs and hunger
Many people experience blood sugar swings when they consume lots of carbohydrates that cause them to get hungry again soon after a meal. We’re like those junk-food eating rats in the study I wrote about a couple of days ago. The rats on the higher-carb diet ate 40% more than the rats on lower-carb diets.
My hypothesis, then, is that the increased carbs in American diets are behind the increased snacking and increased caloric intake.
Since I am not a scientist, I give this hypothesis to Professor Popkin and his team — or to any other group of scientists gunning for a Nobel Prize — to test in a future study.
All I ask for in return is a brief mention in your acceptance speech.