Americans, unsurprisingly, are not hitting the major dietary milestones of the recommended diet—and they haven’t been for quite some time. But the ways in which they’re doing that has changed quite a bit in the last few decades.

The USDA put together this look at the distance between the recommended percentages of a balanced diet and the percentages of foods actually consumed, in both 1970 and with the latest data from 2013.


Top image: 1972 Grocery shopping expedition / Orange County Archives Chart: USDA/ERS

Some of the news is grim: Too much meat, not enough fruits and vegetables. But, there is a glimmer of good news in here: Yes, Americans are still way under-eating veggies and fruit—but the percentages on that are actually getting better than they were 40 years ago.


Of course, that rise comes along with a trend towards an overall rise in calories in every food group, perhaps most significantly in grains, which were the only food group to undergo so marked a change that they went from being under-eaten to not only meeting but significantly exceeding the recommendation. That rise is particularly interesting because it came right in the heat of the low-carb diet-trends. This suggests that diet hype is just that: hype, and has less to do with the overall changes in how people really eat.

There is one other odd thing in this chart—something that isn’t there. It’s one of the fastest-rising segments of the American diet—a lumped together category called “other foods” which includes everything from a Milky Way bar to energy drinks. That segment has rapidly been expanding, but wasn’t included in the count of differences between 1970 and 2013. It’s that unreported category, which currently accounts for almost 20 percent of America’s current food budget in terms of dollars, which may actually make the most difference between the food of today and 43 years ago.

Follow the author at @misra.