Infographic Of The Day: America's Strange Attitudes Toward Food

Americans actually don’t eat that many more calories than other Western countries. But we pay a lot less for our food.

Your average American eats more calories per day than people in any other country in the world. No surprise there! But once you start delving in the data, the picture does indeed get a little weird: We don’t eat that much more than Europeans. But their obesity rates stand at 15%, while ours are double that, at 34%. What the hell?

Food Service Warehouse created this nice interactive chart showing how many calories people around the world consume each day, and what portion of their income goes towards food. Obviously, the U.S. leads in calories consumed:


[Click to view interactive version]


But the data is actually surprising once you get into the details. For starters, Americans only spend 6.9% of their income on food. Compare that to a country such as Italy, which has a far lower rate of obesity. Italians eat only 100 fewer calories per day than we do--but they spend more than twice their income on food:



That trend holds up all across Europe: The British, Germans, and French all eat almost as much as us, but spend between 50-100% more on food.

Granted, Americans don’t walk as much as Europeans do. But the obvious thing you have to conclude is that we simply eat cheaper food that’s worse for us. Again, that’s no surprise given the amount of fast food and processed food that Americans eat. The real question is why we eat like that. I’d place the blame squarely on the 1950s, and our wholesale embrace of mechanized food after World War II. In those days, fast food, canned vegetables, and cheap chicken became a sign of America’s progressiveness: Cheap food, in the days after World War II, were a marker of the roaring economic progress we were making. Cheap food, in other words, was a source of national pride before it became a national habit. Europe, by contrast, had no such industrial miracle. Instead, they simply held onto the food traditions that they always had--of home cooking, for example.

To flip it forward a bit, I would argue that Europeans are willing to pay more for better food because what they eat is so wrapped up with national pride and cultural identity. Why wouldn’t you spend the time to buy great ingredients for something homemade if that’s how your beloved great-grandmother did it? Americans, by contrast, have far less of a cultural attachment to the food we eat. We don’t have national dishes and food traditions that bind us together in the way of Italy or Greece. Sure, we have hamburgers, but can anyone argue that those matter as much as sardines and pasta to Souther Italians? Or fish and dolmas to Greeks? It’s no surprise that we’re so susceptible to cheap food: In some ways, it’s because food simply means less to us. But we simply pay later down the line: Obesity costs America $147 billion in health care costs each year--roughly 10% of every dollar we spend on health care.

[Image: mipstudio/Shutterstock]

Add New Comment

49 Comments

  • AmericaninEurope

    It's all about exercise, less about food. I am an American who has lived in Europe for 15 years. People here get more exercise, but also eat cream, butter, etc. and mainly are average weight. We walk everywhere, hike and bike regularly. Perhaps people here eat healthier food, but it's the lack of regular movement that has caused the massive obesity in the US. As another commenter wrote, it's all about convenience, drive everywhere, not walk more than a few minutes a day, always take the elevator....

  • ssalazar77

     It's naive to simply say that exercise will solve the problem. The reason that Europeans are able to exercise more, walk more is that they're eating better food. Here is a good example: in Europe you can have a hard boiled egg, a baguette, some dried meats, and some cheese for breakfast compared to an American breakfast of two pop tarts and some coffee for breakfast. Let's assume that the caloric values are equal. Which breakfast will give you sufficient energy to take on the the day? All calories are not equal when it is being judged on the amount of energy it provides. Try drinking a coke and eating a candy bar before working out, then tell me how gross and difficult it feels trying to work out.

  • Cordelia de Rojas

    All calories are not created equal.
    We also no longer have a culture of sharing meals, seated around a table, taking our time, enjoying the food in front of us. I've spent a significant part of my life in the US, part in Europe and now I am in Asia. The US stands out as a place where eating seems to be predominantly about re-fueling the tank instead of an opportunity to enjoy time with others. 

    companion: “eating partner”
    Latin com, “with,” and panis, “bread, food”

  • Steven Leighton

    ... " ... To flip it forward a bit, I would argue that Europeans are willing to pay more for better food because ..." we/they are not willing -- there are no cheaper alternatives. I went home for a couple of weeks and was stung by the price of everything food in the supermarkets. The European Union subsidises it's farming industry and so it's as cheep to have fresh peas flown in from Africa as to buy European grown produce.

    Also as incomes in the USA are higher than many European countries you might spend a lesser % of your income on food but buy the same amount.
    How about the salt, sugar grease/oil content?
    How about walking and bicycling?
    100 calories a day is 36.500 a year. It all adds up.

    "Europe, by contrast, had no such industrial miracle. Instead, they
    simply held onto the food traditions that they always had--of home
    cooking, for example."

    Please don't romanticize and generalise the food and cooking of almost 50 independent countries.

  • JB

    The quality of food in the U.S. is appalling, along with the constant fiddling with genetics. Having to give up foods that should be normal to consume, and still being unable to lose weight is absurd. After giving up wheat, and any wheat products, including bread, pasta, pastries, and soy sauce, limiting sugar to a few teaspoons a day at most, dairy is down to 2-3 times a week, never adding anything to my coffee or tea, eating fresh vegetables, cooking with nothing but olive oil, learning to love quinoa, I should weigh 120 lbs. Instead, like the rest of the populous, I weigh over 200 lbs. That we all aren't furious at what we've allowed ourselves to become is mind numbing.

  • Jessbenbow

    I think you may have meant Italians spend more than twice what Americans spend in the above graphics. "Italians eat only 100 fewer calories per day than we do--but they spend more than twice their income on food:"

    This, I would venture to say, could explain the current European economic crisis, but not perhaps the reality of the situation.

  • ssalazar77

    It costs more money to eat healthy. Meanwhile in the U.S. everyone is becoming diabetic. Isn't it odd that diabetes has grown so high in the U.S. compared to other countries. Some people may also say that Mexico's number of diabetics has increased and I would attribute this to poor eating. Why is Wal-Mart so popular in Mexico, because it provides cheap goods and cheap foods to the general public. Why are poor people more overweight than thin people in the U.S., because the food is junk. I'm not being unpatriotic. I love this country, however I also know that food is a business in this country, whereas in the other countries around the world it is a source of nourishment and a reason for people to get together. 

  • Nick Aster

    Good article, but the key quote is still "Granted, Americans don’t walk as much as Europeans do"  ... I think you should look more into that and I'll think the gross disparity starts to be more obvious.

  • Robin

    The top 20 and bottom 20 are well-separated geographically, except in one single case: the over-eating Israelis right next to the under-fed Palestinians. Looks like the Israelis are literally starving the Palestinians out.

  • caroliss88

    I am trying to get this attitude through to my mom. She and I have lived as a 2-person family for 16 years, but she still buys groceries like she is feeding a family of four on a budget of $20 a week. I would much rather eat like the Europeans:  the best quality we can afford, smaller meals, and less junk. We could both lose even more weight this way, and be healthier overall. I earn less than $10K a year, but I am consistently stunned at what I can afford to eat. I've travelled often to Britain and Europe, and I am appalled, when there, at what I cannot afford to eat. My solution to travel-eating in Europe is to stay at a hotel or guesthouse where breakfast is provided daily, go to the local market and buy some fresh food for a light lunch, and use most of my food funds for good-quality dinners.

  • Pavel

    Here's a translated extract from an article concerning deteriorating dining habits in my home country (Czech Rep.). It more than suits this discussion:
    "Know the basic ingredients surrounding us. Know how to shop. Take time to prepare the food and most of all, eat at home. Those are the absolutely core traits without which there's no good food. If we are in a position of not being able or not wanting, we have to bear the consequences. And vice versa - If we can manage, we'll discover the great freedom of eating well. By just preparing the food ourselves from the basic ingredients, the food quality sky rockets. If this seems terribly time- or labor intensive to you, in most cases only the "weaning off" of something absolutely natural is to blame." (IHNED.cz; The whole article in Czech: http://cuketka.blog.ihned.cz/c...

  • Dani Reyes-Acosta

    Haha  , don't forget about basketball!  I will say that when I lived in Barcelona, I walked a heck of a lot more, and ate delicious food that actually took time to make.  The sort of slow food I encountered in Europe stands in stark contrast to the convenience (touche @GBA:twitter ) of horrible fast food that many Americans eat. 

    As a side note, I just want to say that there's nothing more depressing than seeing someone stuffing their face while seated in their car outside of a fast food restaurant.  Come on, Americans!  Enjoy your food--and make it worth it!

  • lyder sagen

    Europeans run around and play soccer to keep fit. Americans just stand still  trying to hit a ball with a bat, not much burning calories in that.

  • GBA

    I'm a Brit who has lived in the US for over 10 years. Some observations (possibly sweeping generalizations too).  

    Convenience is king in the US: Ample parking outside the supermarket, big shopping cart (frozen pizzas can take up a lot of space), probably even someone to put your groceries in the car for you to save you the effort. Then, into the  7 seat SUV, swing by the drive-thru bank on the way home (to get cash for your coffee and muffin at the drive-in St*rb*cks window in the morning), and home to the automatic garage door. Once inside, a few minutes on the Wii Fit to stay in shape. Maybe a trip out in the 7 seat SUV to the local fitness center - making sure to get a parking spot near the door. Out for a meal? Nothing that would involve the use of a knife and fork at the same time, just a fork is good. Ever tried to find a shoe mender in a suburban US town? Shoes wear out?As for food being cheaper in the US? Cheap food is cheaper in the US. But if you fancy a decent loaf, some Camembert and reasonably priced fresh, in-season fruit and veg - Europe's the best place to eat good food cheaply.

    People of all countries get fat when they eat more than they use. It's not rocket surgery. 

    As for the income/money spent on food equation: the wealthiest tend to be slim, while the poorer, who spend the largest percentage  of their income on food, tend to be the fatter people.

  • Karl Roche

    While I agree that many people probably go for cheaper food I can't agree with the main assumption that because people in certain countries spend more on food that is why they are less overweight. This graph doesn't show us the real income for those countries indexed against each other. I would make my own assumption that the countries that spend a greater percentage on food actually earn less money (in real terms) and food cost is greater in those countries too.

    I have no doubt that processed foods are less good for people.

    weight gained is not a simple equation of calories in less calories used. All types of food are processed by the body at different rates. High-glycemic index foods will more quickly turn to fat, so they need to be used quickly, hence foods containing sugar are used in sport. However, most sports drinks are consumed (from what I see) by large children and I don't mean tall. Just notice concurs. ;o)

    Sugar its self is also an issue not addressed here. Our obsession with low fat thinking is harming us, with most of these prepared foods containing high amounts of sugar and salt to replace flavour (yes, I'm English).

    my wife is Chinese and I agree on the price thing but where I think Chinese people are different is that the vast majority of food is prepared from simple ingredients. With a western diet hitting the east to a greater extent I am seeing more children overweight in the last 10 years go up. Pizza, donuts, pasta, cola and fries seem to be the growing sections.

    you need to come to Europe see how slow things are not. You decided what and how long to eat. From my trips stateside it seems that people are no more rushed. I'll leave it at that.

  • cooliehawk

    Cliff,

    I'm going to assume from your name that you, like me, are of Chinese heritage. Like the Europeans, we Chinese unquestionably have great cultural attachment to the food we eat. However, like the Americans, we Chinese like our food cheap. And, outside pockets of great prosperity, our thrift generally wins out over our cultural attachment to food.So while I find this piece interesting, I remain unconvinced by the correlation you propose between cultural attachment to food and the proportion of income spent on it.

  • Pavel

    @ Henry: You're right about fat women not being cool around Europe, but diet drugs? Come on, the only place I've seen diet drugs to be used is an American movie Requiem for a Dream, truly appalling. What's being in recently, are fitness centers and gyms, a lot of folks go jogging or riding bike as well. But diet drugs are not really popular. 

    I believe it's more about what you do than what you eat. You can eat just about anything and stay in shape if you do excercise. But the metabolism of each of us is different, so this might not be true for everyone.

  • Bob

    Actually, it is not as simpl as counting calories.  Your body processes different types of foods and calories in different ways.  For example, it will burn carbs before it burns fats.  So something like pizza is bad for you because it is high in both carbs and fat.  Your body burns the carbs first and you get hungry before it can burn the fat.