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Fast food is getting healthier — but Americans, unfortunately, aren't

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This week, a New York Times op-ed declared that there's been a "seismic shift" in America's habits. Namely, people seem to be demanding healthier food and turning away from processed fare and "artificial" ingredients.

As evidence, authors Hans Taparia and Pamela Koch cited several promising trends. Soda consumption is down, for example. More consumers are rejecting McDonald's and opting instead for "fast casual" options like Sweetgreen. They also noted that food companies have been revamping their products in response to consumer demand: "General Mills will drop all artificial colors and flavors from its cereals. Perdue, Tyson and Foster Farm have begun to limit the use of antibiotics in their chicken." And so on.

But does this really add up to healthier eating? It doesn't seem so — at least not yet.

When you dig into the data, at a macro level, Americans are still eating very poorly, even consuming fewer fresh fruits and vegetables compared with six years ago. The newest figures show the obesity rate is actually on the rise. So McDonald's may be seeing a slump in sales, but it will take a lot more than a few salad chains to improve America's diet.

It's true that Americans are drinking less soda

coke soda
Soda sales have fallen in recent years. (Graphic by Javier Zarracina)

As the above graphic shows, soda production is down, which is the best indicator that consumption is also on the decline.

The consumption of sugary breakfast cereals has also dropped over time as more wholesome options like yogurt have become more popular. And a study published this month in the journal Health Affairs found that Americans are also eating less trans fat (which increases the risk of heart disease and death) and more fiber — indicators of improvements in overall nutrition.

But we're still not eating nearly enough fruits and vegetables

State of the Plate

But here's the flip side: A few positive trends aren't making much of a dent in eating patterns that remain, overall, pretty terrible.

For example, Americans still aren't eating nearly enough fruits and vegetables. According to the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2013 fewer than 10 percent of American adults ate the recommended helping of vegetables; fewer than 15 percent consumed the recommended amount of fruit.

And those numbers have actually been getting worse over time. As you can see in the chart above, America's per capita consumption of fruit and vegetables has declined since 2009.

Even these figures may understate the problem. Potatoes — which aren't the healthiest choice, particularly when fried — are still far and away the most popular vegetable in the US.

Consumption of fruits and vegetables is a crucial health indicator. As the CDC put it, "Eating more fruits and vegetables adds nutrients to diets, reduces the risk for heart disease, stroke, and some cancers, and helps manage body weight when consumed in place of more energy-dense foods."

The overall obesity rate is climbing

 Trends in obesity prevalence among adults aged 20 and over (age-adjusted) and youth aged 2–19 years: United States, 1999–2000 through 2013–2014.  CDC/NHANES
Trends in obesity prevalence among adults ages 20 and over (age-adjusted) and youth ages 2 to 19 years: United States, 1999–2000 through 2013–2014.

And here's perhaps the best evidence that healthier eating hasn't caught hold just yet: About 38 percent of adults in America were obese in 2013-'14 — up from 32 percent in 2003-'04. Among youth, the obesity rate has stayed flat since 2003–'04 despite the major push to address childhood obesity.

When it comes to obesity, there's huge variation among demographic groups, with black and Hispanic Americans having the highest rates. The data shows that nearly half of black American adults and 42 percent of Hispanic Americans were obese in the period from 2011 to 2014. And it's quite plausible that income plays a role here.

The groups with the highest rates of obesity are also the poorest

US Census Bureau
US poverty rates by race 2007 to 2011.
US Census Bureau

As it happens, black and Hispanic Americans are also the racial and ethnic groups with especially high percentages of individuals living below the poverty line. This suggests that whatever positive trends in nutrition might currently be unfolding — a decline soda consumption, the broader availability of healthy fast food — they aren't being shared across the income spectrum.

Bottom line: America's overall eating habits remain pretty terrible, and the rise of Sweetgreen hasn't really made a dent, at least not yet.