19 Facts Americans Don’t Know About Their Eating Habits

When you think about the American diet, what comes to mind? Many people imagine high-calorie meals, astronomical portion sizes, and excessive fast food.

While Americans might have some room for dietary improvements, it’s not all bad news. In fact, many Americans strive to eat well and maintain a healthy lifestyle.

This list highlights 19 facts you may not know about Americans’ eating habits. These tidbits include the good, the bad, and the downright surprising, compiled from various government data and news sources.

1: Too Much Sodium

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Nearly every person in the United States has a high-sodium diet. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that nine in 10 Americans consume sodium well above the recommended guidelines. While people should have less than 2,300 milligrams (mg) per day, Americans eat over 3,400 mg of sodium daily.

Americans’ high sodium intake comes from a variety of sources. The usual culprits include packaged, processed, store-bought, and restaurant foods, which collectively account for over 70% of the sodium in Americans’ diets.

2: Bowling Balls of Sugar

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Sodium isn’t the only ingredient Americans eat in excess. When it comes to sugar, you can actually measure Americans’ consumption in bowling balls. Each year, the average U.S. resident over age 19 consumes about 60 pounds of added sugar, which is the equivalent of six bowling balls weighing 10 pounds each.

The upside is that Americans know they eat too much sugar, and they’re working to change their habits. According to the American Heart Association, 77% of Americans want to eat less sugar, and about seven in 10 say they’ll ditch their favorite sugary foods to meet their goals.

3: Sugary Drinks

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Where’s all this sugar coming from? Look no further than sugary drinks, which the CDC has identified as the leading source of added sugars for Americans.

Sugary drinks obviously include soda, but you will also find added sugars in fruit juices, energy drinks, lemonade, and sweet tea. Don’t forget about the sugar and creamer you add to your coffee or tea, as well as the flavored drinks you get from your favorite coffee shop.

4: Healthy Diet Barriers

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Americans get a bad rap for their eating habits, but the truth is that many people in the country face barriers to healthy diets. A survey by the Cleveland Clinic found that 46% of Americans believe healthy food is more expensive, and 23% say they struggle to find time to cook well-balanced meals.

In addition, accessibility to healthy food is a problem in many parts of the country, particularly in minority communities. One-fifth of Black Americans say it’s difficult for them to get to stores with healthy food options.

5: Fast Food Is King

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Fast food is relatively cheap and easy, so it’s no wonder that many Americans stop at the drive-thru when it’s time to eat. Nearly half (45%) of U.S. residents get fast food at least once a week, according to the Cleveland Clinic.

While most Americans know there’s little nutritional value in fast food, there’s a small portion of people who believe it’s a healthy choice. About 10% of people in the country say they choose fast food for a heart-healthy diet.

6: McDonald’s Tops Them All

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Americans have no shortage of options for fast food, but one establishment continues to reign supreme. McDonald’s USA President Joe Erlinger estimates that over 85% of Americans eat McDonald’s at least one time every year.

One possible reason for McDonald’s dominance could be the sheer number of restaurants per capita. There’s about one McDonald’s per 24,000 people in the United States, so you’re never far from your next Big Mac.

7: Many Enjoy Home-Cooked Meals

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It’s no secret that the fast-food culture runs deep in the United States. However, many people still find time to make their own meals every week.

Over two-thirds of Americans make home-cooked meals at least four days each week, according to the Cleveland Clinic survey. Making your own meals can give you greater control over the foods you’re consuming, contributing to a healthier lifestyle.

8: Healthy Eating Goals

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Americans may have a reputation for unhealthy eating, but many are working to change this perception. In fact, about 50% of Americans say they’re doing their best to maintain a healthy diet, based on data from Statista Consumer Insights.

The goal of eating a healthy diet varies in importance among the different generations. Older Americans are more likely to agree that eating healthy is important, with about 58% saying they try to eat well. On the other hand, Gen Z places the lowest importance on healthy eating; only 44% of this generation actively makes healthy eating a priority.

9: Nutritional Knowledge Is Lacking

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Americans may want to eat healthier, but a lack of information can impede their goals. A recent study by the calorie-counting app MyFitnessPal found that many people lack basic knowledge about diet and nutrition.

Among those surveyed, 88% said they don’t know the extent of protein, carbs, and sugar they eat every day. What’s more, Americans are likely to underestimate the fat content of common foods, such as fish tacos and avocados.

10: High-Calorie Snacks

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How often do you reach for a snack to beat the mid-afternoon slump or end the night with a post-dinner treat? If your answer is “every day,” you’re not alone. An Ohio State University study found that snacks account for nearly one-quarter of Americans’ daily recommended calories.

On average, Americans eat about 400 to 500 calories worth of snacks every day. Unfortunately, these snacks usually have minimal nutritional value and often contain high amounts of sugars and carbohydrates.

11: Few Fruits and Veggies

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For those Americans looking to improve their eating habits, there are a few obvious places to start. The vast majority of U.S. residents don’t get enough fruits and vegetables, according to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans from the Departments of Agriculture (USDA) and Health and Human Services (HHS).

Close to 90% of Americans don’t eat the recommended amount of veggies, which includes subgroups like dark green vegetables and beans, peas, and lentils. They’re slightly better about eating fruits, but about 80% fall short of the ideal intake in this category, too. 

12: Plenty of Protein

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What Americans may lack in fruits and veggies, they make up for in protein. The dietary guidelines show that over half of Americans get the recommended amount of protein (or more).

Among the protein subgroups, Americans eat more meats, poultry, and eggs than any other type of protein. Fewer people get their protein intake from nuts, seeds, or soy products, and seafood is the least likely form of protein for Americans to consume.

13: Heavy on Refined Grains

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Grains are another food group where Americans do well at getting the recommended intake. Over 50% of Americans consume at least the recommended amount of total grains.

Not all grains are created equal, however, and Americans consume far more refined grains than whole grains. That’s a problem because refined grains should account for no more than half of a person’s total grain consumption. As it stands, over 90% of Americans don’t get enough whole grains in their diets.

14: Nothing Better Than Cheddar

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If there’s one food Americans love to eat, it’s cheese. From pizza to nachos to burgers, you can find some form of cheese on many quintessential American dishes.

Americans’ obsession with cheese recently reached record levels. The average U.S. resident now eats nearly 42 pounds of cheese each year, according to the USDA. That’s a lot of cheddar.

15: A Household Staple

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The United States is a diverse country, filled with people who have wide-ranging culinary tastes and preferences. But there’s one food that transcends these differences, finding its way into nearly every home in the nation: peanut butter.

In the United States, you can find peanut butter in a whopping 90% of households, according to a recent CNBC report. Whether you spread it on crackers, dip apple slices in it, or combine it with jelly for a kid-friendly sandwich, peanut butter has clearly made its mark on Americans.

16: Meat-and-Potatoes Diet

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You’ve probably heard that Americans love the good ol’ meat-and-potatoes diet. Now there’s data to back up this claim. The top three most popular dishes in the United States include hamburgers, mashed potatoes, and cheeseburgers, according to Statista.

For the most part, other forms of meat and potatoes round out the top 10 most popular foods in America. These dishes include French fries, steak and baked potatoes, hash browns, and steak and fries. 

17: Obesity Is Prevalent

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Unfortunately, America’s more unhealthy eating habits have led to a rise in health-related complications, including obesity. Between 1999 and 2020, the number of Americans with obesity increased from 30.5% to 41.9%, according to CDC data.

Obesity can be a precursor to other medical conditions, such as heart disease and diabetes. Ultimately, the CDC puts the country’s medical cost of obesity at around $173 billion each year.

18: Diets Are Common

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Many Americans are well aware of the link between nutrition and health. About 33% of people say they follow specific diets or eating patterns as a way to prevent health conditions and improve their well-being, according to the International Food Information Council.

Just over half of Americans (52%) say they follow a particular diet, with the most popular ones including high protein, mindful eating, and calorie counting. Besides long-term health, other reasons Americans cite for dieting include losing weight and looking better.

19: Parents Making Changes

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If you ask Americans, many will tell you they know they can do better about eating healthy. There’s some data to suggest parents are taking active steps to instill healthy habits in their children at a young age. 

A national poll conducted by the C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital found that only one-third of parents say the American diet is healthy for children. Among those surveyed, 59% of parents say they aim to limit foods with added sugars, and 94% actively try to get their children to eat vegetables. If those habits stick, the next generation of Americans might be the healthiest one yet.

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