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Words of Wellness-The United States Obesity Mystery - April 29, 2013

By: Kate Adams

Dietitian at On With Life


About 35% of US adults are obese and while it may seem that Americans are supersizing and snacking more than ever, we are in fact taking in fewer calories per day. Research appearing in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that Americans were taking in more calories from 1971 to 2003, but since 2003 we have been consuming 74 calories less per day. So if we are taking in less calories why aren’t our waistlines shrinking? The article suggests a few reasons why things aren’t adding up. 


  • It may take more time to see the obesity rates respond to the decreased calorie intake. This may be a possibility, but I should also note that Americans that are considered obese are even more obese (higher BMIs) than in 2003 which means it would take a greater reduction in calories to see weight loss.

  • Estimated calorie intakes may simply be wrong or participants in the survey may be embarrassed about how much they truly are eating. Although if this were the case I would think people would have been inaccurately reporting prior to 2003 as well. 
  • We may not be getting enough exercise to burn the calories we are consuming. I think we have a winner! Americans are more sedentary than ever.

When considering the amount of calories you take in each day it is also important to keep in mind the quality of the calories. Sure 100 calories worth of carrots and 100 calories of M&Ms are the same amount of calories, but they aren’t all created equal.  Let’s compare a snack of 200 calories worth of potato chips to an apple with peanut butter (also about 200 calories). The potato chips are calorie dense and will provide mostly carbohydrates and some fat. The apple and peanut butter provides fiber, protein and heart-healthy fats that will keep fuller for much longer compared to the chips. Choosing the snack that is filled with protein and fiber will provide the same calories but you won’t be hungry an hour later and reaching for more food (and calories). So yes, a calorie is a calorie but choosing wisely may lead to you choosing less.