People today are eating a lot more than their grandparents did. The amount of calories available for each person in the world has risen 28 percent in the last 50 years. But there's still a ton of variation between countries. Indians eat less meat than most. Americans consume far more sugar and fat. And the average Chinese person now eats twice as much food as in 1961.
National Geographic recently created a great interactive visualization of the world's dietary habits, breaking down what each country eats in detail. You should go check it out and play around with their graphics, as they're fascinating. I've pulled out five striking tidbits:
1) 37% of calories in the American diet come from sugar and fat
In 2011, the amount of food available for consumption in America came to about 3,641 calories per person per day, on average. (Note: The statistics here refer to "food supply," or how much food is available for each person — not all of it gets eaten, since a fair bit gets wasted.*)
What's striking is that 37 percent of those calories came from sugar and fat — nearly double the global average. By contrast, China only gets 11 percent of its calories from sugar and fat.
The main factor here is vegetable oils — which provide 19 percent of calories in the American diet. Indeed, the rise of vegetable oil explains about half of the sharp rise in US calorie intake over the past 50 years. Back in 2012, The Atlantic ran a great piece by Drew Ramsey and Tyler Graham about the rise of Crisco and how vegetable oil displaced butter and lard in cooking over time.
2) The average Chinese person now eats more meat than the average American
In 2011, the amount of food available to the average Chinese person was about 3,073 calories per day — double what it was half a century ago.
China's diet is also starkly different from America's. The average person in China eats about twice as much produce as the average American. And the average person in China now eats more meat (when measured in calories) than the average American. On the flip side, the average Chinese person eats far less dairy, sugars, and fats.
3) Wheat and rice alone provide 37% of the world's calories
In 2011, the global food supply was about 2,870 calories per person per day, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. The sources break down as follows:
- Grains, 45 percent
- Sugar and fat, 20 percent
- Meat, 9 percent
- Dairy and eggs, 8 percent
- Produce, 11 percent
Wheat and rice are arguably the world's two most important crops, providing about 37 percent of all calories. That varies greatly from place to place, however. In the United States, just 2 percent of calories come from rice. In Japan, it's 21 percent.
(And yes, calories alone aren't everything — the National Geographic feature lets you look at things by weight as well.)
4) There's very little meat in the Indian diet
India is still much poorer than both China and India on a per-person basis, and that's reflected in the diet. India's food supply is about 2,458 calories per person per day — far less than the US or China.
Meat consumption in India has historically been quite low, for cultural and religious reasons. (Both the Jain faith and some Hindu groups eschew meat, and an estimated 31 percent of the country is vegetarian.) But as the country gets richer and the middle class grows, that's changing. The average Indian now consumes more meat than at any point on record, and the chicken industry in particular is booming.
5) Meat consumption is rising, but some nations have hit "peak meat"
Back in 1961, meat consumption was about 93 grams per person per day. By 2011, the that had risen to 171 grams per person per day. The rise of poultry and seafood are the two biggest stories here. Average beef consumption, by contrast, has stayed roughly flat.
That said, there are some interesting variations here. The United States seems to have hit "peak meat" back in 2004. Since then, meat consumption has declined. Americans are eating much more chicken and less beef than they used to:
It's not just the United States. Per capita meat consumption also appears to have peaked in Argentina, Japan, Spain, Germany, and the United Kingdom. (One curious country is Germany, where meat consumption plummeted after the recession in 1999 and never really recovered.)
* Update/clarification: I added in a definition of "food supply" for clarity. This is the amount of food available for human consumption in each country, but it's not necessarily what people eat, since food invariably gets wasted etc.
This is only a tiny fraction of the great charts and visuals on National Geographic's site. Go check out their full interactive.
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