Americans are cutting calories, but far from eating healthy

Story highlights

  • The number of calories consumed by Americans has been on the decline in the last 10 years
  • Decreases in the consumption of sugary drinks and trans fats have played a large part the calorie decline
  • Americans still eat too much fast food and foods with added sugar and not enough fruits and vegetables

(CNN)After years of bad news about the obesity epidemic, which affects one-third of Americans, things may finally be looking up. In the past 10 years the rates of obesity appear to be leveling off among both children and adults.

The reason for the possible turn in the obesity tide appears to come down to what experts always suspected it would: eating fewer calories. One recent study found that the average adult went from consuming 2,220 calories a day in 2003 to 2,134 in 2010.
    There are already hints of some of the other health payoffs of reducing calories. "In addition to improvements in obesity, there is evidence that we have avoided vast numbers of premature deaths," probably by reducing heart disease, diabetes and other conditions, said Dr. Walter Willett, professor of nutrition and epidemiology at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
      Even more encouraging is that Americans appear to be cutting calories in the places they should. They are having fewer sugary drinks, and all but nixed trans fats, even before the recent federal ban.
      Yet, Americans still have a long way to go in how they divvy up calories to get their plates to look more like My Plate, the Department of Agriculture's guideline for healthy eating.
      "There has not been a big enough change in sugar-sweetened beverages and refined carbohydrates and fast foods, and there has not been an increase in the healthy foods," said Barry Popkin, distinguished professor of global nutrition at the University of North Carolina. "We have slightly cut our calories [but] we still consume over half our calories from the wrong foods," he said.
      Experts hope, however, that the small improvements in recent years are just the beginning of a calorie-swapping trend. "I think we are seeing a cultural change like we have with smoking," Willett said. "I think we reached a tipping point that will accelerate the decrease in sugary drinks," and also lead to an increase in the consumption of healthy foods, he added.

      Sodas and fruit juices way down, water way up

      Americans in almost every age and ethnic group have been weaning themselves off soda and fruit drinks. A study of nationwide diet surveys found that children and adults consumed an average of about 155 and 151 calories, respectively, from these drinks in 2010, down from 223 and 196 calories in 1999. Both at home and when eating out, during meals and at snack time, they reported passing on these beverages.
      In most cases, Americans are substituting soda for healthier choices. "As [sugar-sweetened] beverages have been going down, water is zooming right up, and that is split between tap water and bottled water," about 60-40, said Adam Drewnowski, director of the Center for Public Health Nutrition at the University of Washington School of Public Health. "That's a good thing," he added.
      Although consumption of energy drinks and sweetened teas and coffees rose between 1999 and 2010, these drinks made up a small percentage of calories that Americans get from sugary drinks.
      All this is good news, but it is not enough. "We are getting a little closer on sugary beverages, but not anywhere close to where we need to get," Popkin said. Most (60%) of Americans still consume 230 calories or more a day of added sugar, he added. The new advisory Dietary Guidelines by the Department of Health and Human Services and Department of Agriculture recommend that people get no more than 10% of their daily calories (about 200 calories) from added sugar.

      Added sugars: Adding up

      While Americans are making progress in cutting sugary drinks, which make up nearly 50% of calories from added sugar—they aren't giving up some other food items with added sugar.
      Refined carbohydrates and grain-based desserts, such as pastries and cookies, are a leading source of calories from added sugars. According to data from dietary surveys compiled by Popkin, consumption of refined carbohydrates has stayed about the same, and the consumption of desserts has been creeping up. Kids went from getting 297 calories a day from such sweet treats in 2003 to 317 in 2012.