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Food Consumption and Nutrient Intakes


ERS provides data on food and nutrient intake by food source: 

  • Three tables provide estimates of food consumption in 2003-04 relative to recommendations from the 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
  • Two tables provide estimates of nutrient intake in 2005-08 by food source.

About Our Estimates

The National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) measures foods actually eaten by individuals. Since 2003, NHANES has recorded food intake over 2 nonconsecutive days using 24-hour dietary recalls to obtain information about what people eat. Survey respondents also reported where food was purchased and where it was eaten.

NHANES collects demographic information, such as household income, race and ethnicity, age, and sex, along with a variety of health data, through household interviews and medical examinations conducted in-person at mobile examination centers. This information makes the data particularly valuable for linking diet and eating habits to health outcomes such as obesity, diabetes, and hypertension. The NHANES data provide background information useful in policy formation, regulation, program planning and evaluation as well as education and research.

Food consumption estimates

Food consumption data from NHANES were combined with USDA's MyPyramid Equivalents Database (MPED) to estimate food consumption by food groups as specified in the 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. The MPED database translates food quantities reported in NHANES into MyPyramid equivalents as specified in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. For example, a respondent in NHANES may report having eaten a specific amount of apple pie; such data are then translated into cups of fruit, ounces of grain, teaspoons of solid fat and/or teaspoons of added sugar. While NHANES data are available through 2008, the most recent MPED data are for 2003-04. Thus, ERS compares food consumption in 2003-04 to the recommendations put forth in the 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

Data on where food is obtained are used to divide food into 2 categories-at-home and away-from-home food.

  • Food at home is generally obtained at a retail store such as a supermarket, grocery store, or convenience store.
  • Food away from home is generally purchased from foodservice establishments such as full-service restaurants with waitstaff, fast food restaurants with limited menus and no waitstaff, and carryout places. Food away from home can also be obtained from school cafeterias, day care centers, and summer camps for children age 2-19 as well as from other community food programs.

Food consumption in terms of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans' groups is reported for all sources and the total U.S. population, as well as by food source, children age 2-19, and adults age 20 and older.

In food consumption table 1, calorie intake in 2003-04 is also reported. By comparing food consumption data with calorie intake data, food consumption can be expressed in terms of density-the amount of food for each 1,000 calories contained in an American diet. This density measurement is used in USDA's calculation of the Healthy Eating Index. By comparing food consumption density with the benchmark density (a ratio of the recommended consumption amount to calorie intake as specified in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans), insight can be gained about shortfalls in American diets relative to the dietary guidelines. Comparing food consumption density by food source yields a better understanding of the source of American dietary shortfalls. Food consumption density for children and adults as well as density by food source are reported in food consumption table 2. The benchmark food density is presented in food consumption table 3.

Nutrient intake estimates

Studies have shown that Americans tend to over-consume fats, sodium, and cholesterol but under-consume calcium, fiber, and iron. Using USDA's nutrient database, food consumption data in NHANES were converted to nutrient consumption data. Average (mean) intakes of these nutrients for the total U.S. population, children age 2-19, and adults age 20 and older are reported by food source in nutrient table 1. Mean calorie intakes are also reported in table 1.  Nutrient intake can be expressed in terms of density by the ratio of nutrient intake to calorie intake; the result can then be compared with the dietary recommendations.

Recommended nutrient intakes (macronutrients and minerals) which vary by age and gender are provided from two sources. The 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans has a complete list of recommended nutrient intakes. Due to variations in daily nutrient intake, two-day intake data are used to estimate usual intakes; these can then be compared with the dietary recommendations. The Agricultural Research Service, USDA also reports usual nutrient intake data by demographic characteristics, but not by food source.

Mean nutrient intakes are reported by food source in nutrient table 1 and by nutrient density in table 2, providing insight about sources of over- and under-consumption of various nutrients. For example, foods rich in calcium are essential for children's development. According to nutrient table 2, the mean calcium intake for children age 2-19 is 511 milligrams per 1,000 calories. Calcium intake by source shows that, for each 1,000 calories, children consume 542 milligrams of calcium at home, lower than the amount consumed at school (650 milligrams) but higher than the amount consumed at restaurants (364 milligrams) and fast food places (381 milligrams). The increased popularity of eating away from home-at restaurants and fast food places-is associated with a deficiency in calcium intake.

Last updated: Thursday, July 05, 2012

For more information contact: Biing-Hwan Lin

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