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For the first time since the government began tracking dietary trends 40 years ago, Americans have reduced their caloric intake. The news validates several major public-health initiatives over the past several years and may signal a sea change in consumer buying habits. Still, a closer look at the data reveals a much more sobering reality.

Three sets of government statistics — food production, consumer data from food bar codes, and reviews of food diaries — from 2004 to 2013 suggest that caloric intake by adults and children are in the midst of the “first sustained decline” since the 1970s, reports Margot Sanger-Katz in the New York Times. In addition, overall levels of obesity have begun to decline, a fact that has led public-health advocates to cheer a significant cultural shift.

“I think people are hearing the message, and diet is slowly improving,” Dariush Mozaffarian, MD, DrPH, dean of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University, told Sanger-Katz. Barry Popkin, a professor at the University of North Carolina who has studied food consumption patterns extensively, hailed the report as a “turning point.”

The most dramatic finding, Sanger-Katz notes, is a move away from sugar-sweetened beverages. Americans have clearly taken heed of public-health warnings about the dangers of drinking too much soda. Since the late 1990s, consumption of these beverages declined by 25 percent.

That’s a significant improvement until you realize that the average consumer still guzzles 30 gallons of these sugary drinks each year. It’s that sort of sobering statistic — along with the fact that Americans aren’t exactly flocking to farmers’ markets and stocking up on veggies — that has dampened some of the enthusiasm around last week’s report. “The food part of our diet is horrendous and remains horrendous,” Popkin said.

On the other hand, given the state of the nation’s collective health, any sign of progress is worth at least two cheers, Kelly Brownell, dean of the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University, told Sanger-Katz. “This was like a freight train going downhill without brakes. Anything slowing it down is good.”

And remember: Not all calories are created equal. For more on quality versus quantity of calories, see “Who’s Counting?” in our March 2012 issue.

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