Three Major Shifts in Household Food Purchases

Household food purchases have shifted significantly in a healthy direction, according to a new study led by Shu Wen Ng and published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Ng used data from both NHANES and the Nielsen Homescan panel for the analysis. The analysis showed that between 2003 and 2011, calories purchased or reported consumed in the U.S. fell significantly (p < 0.001). The size of the decline amounted to about 40 fewer calories per day.

Three shifts within these data are particularly noteworthy:

  1. Households with children reduced their calories most. Nielsen purchase data showed greater declines in total food and beverage calorie purchases for households with children. Consistent with this observation, NHANES data showed greater caloric intake declines for children than for adults.
  2. Beverage calories declined more than foods. Both Nielsen purchase data and NHANES intake data show a greater percentage reduction in beverage calories than the reduction in food calories.
  3. Racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic disparities are evident in the trends. The greatest declines in energy intake came from Mexican American children, children from low-income families, and children in households headed by someone with a high school education. Non-hispanic black children, adolescents, and children in households headed by someone with less than a high school education had no declines in energy intakes. For adults, the only declines in total caloric intake were seen among Mexican Americans, women, and people with some college education.

To be sure, these data are not perfect. Each source has limitations, but by analyzing trends from two entirely independent datasets, we find comfort in similar trends. These trends are also broadly consistent with food industry data recently released that shows a reduction of 6.4 trillion calories in the U.S. food supply between 2007 and 2012.

Also reassuring is the analysis that suggests the trends documented here represent fundamental behavioral changes far more than they represent economic effects of the great recession of 2008.

Several sources have suggested that obesity prevalence trends are leveling out. Caution about a premature declaration of victory over the obesity epidemic has been justified, particularly because those who are most severely affected are seeing no relief as of yet.

Nonetheless, these data on population-level purchasing and intake of calories do point to progress, especially for children. Further analysis may well yield clues for making further progress.

Click here to read more in HealthDay, here to read more from ConscienHealth, and here to read the study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

Edmond Mille – Vegetable Fruit & Potatoes, photograph © Mahdi Abdulrazak / flickr

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