It’s Stunning How Much Better Americans Are Eating

Photo-Illustration: Photo: Donald Erickson/Getty Images

Being fat is one of the things that America is known for in the popular imagination (27th in the world in obesity, baby). This has historically been linked with the things that Americans put in their mouths; this is the land of Mac N’ Cheetosgarbage plates, and Guy Fieri after all. And yet, despite the esteemed diners, drive-ins, and dives that populate this country, we are somehow, someway eating way better than before.

In news that is certainly making Michelle Obama proud, the Journal of the American Medical Association came out with a study this week estimating that the percentage of U.S. adults with poor diets (as defined by the American Heart Association) fell from 55.9 percent to 45.6 percent between 1999 and 2012. The percentage of “intermediate” (read: non-garbage) diets increased from 43.5 percent to 52.9 percent. The data came from seven national surveys over the 13-year period, with a total of nearly 34,000respondents.

Whole grains were a big-time winner, nearly doubling from .56 servings a day in 1999 to one serving a day in 2012, and whole fruits went up as well. Many less-than-savory habits stayed stable: refined grains, saturated fat, sodium, and processed meats all remain as popular today as they were at the turn of the millennium. Other reports signal the “seismic shift” in the way we eat: Soda sales have collapsed; packaged cereal sales have fallen 25 percent since 2000; frozen dinner sales fell 11 percent from 2007 to 2012; while fresh prepared foods have gone up 30 percent since 2009, and among young adults and kids, eating fruits and veggies has grown 10 percent in the last five years.

As pointed out by Max Ehrenfreund at the Washington Post, the differences in diet fall along class lines: The percentage of affluent people with poor diets fell from 50 percent to 36 percent from 2004 to 2012, while it was 68 percent to 60 percent for the low-income bracket. It’s consonant with another troubling finding in JAMA earlier this year: that earnings correlate with life expectancy. Women in the top 1 percent live 10 years longer than women in the bottom 1 percent, the New York Times reported, while men in the top 1 percent live 15 years longer than the poorest 1 percent.

Still, a national trend in eating better is unequivocally a good thing, and Big Food is finally responding to changing consumer tastes. General Mills isdropping artificial ingredients in cereals, Kraft (secretly!) did the same for their macaroni and cheese, and McDonald’s is banning antibiotics in their poultry. If these trends hold, maybe we’ll be treated to the sight of Guy Fieri tearing into a monster kale salad — with Michelle Obama clapping him on.

Americans Are Eating Much Healthier