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« An Age of Orange-xiety | Main | Kimmelman on Libeskind »

April 13, 2004


Dear Friedrich --

The Timothy Taylor economic history of the US in the 20th century that I've recently finished is, as you'd expect, full of fascinating facts. For example: not only are we, in adjusted-GDP-per-person terms, five times better off than Americans were in 1900, we're twice as well-off as Americans were in 1960.

I think my favorite fact, though, is an oddball one about food. According to Taylor, the average American in 2000 ate about the same amount of protein and calories as did the average American in 1900. These days, though, we eat more vitamins, 1/3 more fat -- and considerably less mass. In fact, the average American in 2000 ate 350 fewer pounds of food than did an American in 1900. 350 pounds! Nearly a pound a day less food!

I don't know what exactly to make of this, but I'm amazed.

Timothy Taylor's four lecture series on economics can be bought here. I've enjoyed them all.



posted by Michael at April 13, 2004


One thing a "denser" diet would give modern Americans is, er,hemorrhoids. I wonder if the incidence of this plague has increased?

I'm a little confused by your statistics. If Americans are eating the same number of calories, the same amount of protein and more fat, then that only leaves us with fewer carbs to be ingesting. Which may well be the truth, but I seem to remember that the number of pounds of refined sugar we're eating has soared continuously for the past 200 years. So, we're eating fewer carbs but they're far more loaded with refined sugar? (I can see the fewer overall carb thing, as it is my impression that many people in the 19th century ate truly astonishing amounts of bread ever year, hundreds and hundreds of pounds of the stuff, as it was so darn cheap and easy to transport as grain.)

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on April 13, 2004 10:25 AM

We are eating a pound less per day and still gaining weight?

Posted by: David Sucher on April 13, 2004 10:45 AM

There's the output side of the equation to consider: i.e., people in 1900 didn't ride around in cars or sit at desks all day. They rode horses and walked and generally didn't have labor saving machines. So, they needed more energy and were able to eat more and still not be as grotesquely fat as today's American's are increasingly becoming.

Posted by: JoJoMeier on April 13, 2004 11:14 AM

All hail the mighty Teaching Company! Please please, if you only buy into one of the blowhards insights this year, then FINE go ahead and buy that bright orange jumpsuit. But if you buy into TWO of their recommendations, then you MUST try the teaching company.

I've already addicted two of my friends. It's like college, only 99% cheaper and with a much higher average quality.

Posted by: Robert Holzbach on April 13, 2004 12:26 PM

Right on, Holzbach-dude, and I'm eager to hear which Teaching Company series you've been listening to recently. Don't hold back!

I'm a little confused by the stats too. It seems like it would take an awful lot of exercise to eat the calories and protein we do but be considerably lighter. And they were generally shorter than we are too. But maybe they really did work physically super-hard back then.

Like FvB, I looked at these stats and thought, good lord, wouldn't it be interesting to see these figures set against a graph showing the incidence of hemorrhoids. I do remember reading some article once comparing (believe it or not) hemorrhoid rates in India (lots of bulk movin' through those skinny people apparently) and rates in America. Apparently hemorrhoids are virtually unknown in India, and amazingly common here.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 13, 2004 1:26 PM

What would be interesting is to look at when the food groups were consumed in the year. We dont eat seasonally anymore. Starchs and carbs are the most easily preserved without refrigeration of the food groups.

And I agree with JoJoMeier. They got more execise then, tho they called it work. Think about doing the laundry without a washer and dryer and a source of hot water. Or what it takes to heat with wood without a chainsaw and pick up truck to go get it. From everything I've read about clothing and food production back then, women, at least, spent a lot more calories on essential work to the family than they do now. Even sewing machines had treadles on them.

Posted by: Deb on April 13, 2004 3:23 PM

Maybe people eat more soup back then? That's a good way to increase the weight of your lunch.

Posted by: jose on April 13, 2004 3:43 PM

It might also be the case that they ate substantially more indigestible 'food'. A diet high in cellulose (many sorts of vegetables, for instance) could have far less extractable energy per unit mass (energy density) and require the person to eat much more bulk for the same nutrition.

Posted by: Doug Sundseth on April 13, 2004 5:14 PM

Doug is correct. A diet of a century ago was far less processed than a diet of today. They ate a lot more "whole" foods back then: apples instead of apple juice, oatmeal instead of oatmeal energy bars, baked potatoes instead of French fries, etc. etc.

Posted by: PapayaSF on April 13, 2004 7:00 PM

Also, I suspect the "pounds per person" calculation is made at the wholesale or retail level, and is not an actual measurement of what went into people's mouths. Less processed food means more waste at home. I'll bet the figures for a century ago for meat include a lot of bones, skin, and organs that weren't eaten, but were bought when you got a chicken or whatever. I once read that the average Mexican household has much more food waste than the average American household due to this factor. Spoiled food due to lack of refrigeration and preservatives might also be a factor.

Posted by: PapayaSF on April 13, 2004 8:48 PM

Well, since you asked, I'm going on a 7 hour car trip tomorrow and am taking with me the teaching company's "Understanding Poetry" tapes. I've already listened to about 8 of the lectures and to be honest, it can be a bit hard to do the poetry series in the car. It just demands a little more attention, lacking the narrative flow of the historical series. So, I often find myself drifting, rewinding, then rewinding again. Still, poetry is one of those things that greatly benefits from hearing the lecturers passion. I have yet to find many written accounts of poetry appreciation that moved me to read more.

Except for Professor Paglia of course.

Except that she also makes me want to conquer a small eastern european country. Not that that's a bad thing.

Posted by: Robert Holzbach on April 14, 2004 8:54 PM

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