Studies don’t generally focus on potential positive effects of a recession, but a report published by the U.S. Department of Agriculture found that the recession benefited eating habits in the United States. ”Changes in Eating Patterns and Diet Quality Among Working-Age Adults, 2005-2010” evaluated three periods: before, during, and after the Great Recession. Working age adults — those born between 1946 and 1985 — comprised the sample.
Food consumption habits were then analyzed to understand the mean caloric intake, calories from food eaten away from home (FAFH in the report), fast food calories, and total meals and snacks consumed. From there, the research focused on four components of diet: percent of calories from fat, percent of calories from saturated fat, total cholesterol intake, and total fiber intake.
The USDA found that between the periods of 2005-2006 and 2009-2010, an average daily decline of 118 calories occurred. When controlling for age, this falls to 78 calories per day. Eating out less is seen as the driving force behind the calorie reduction.
Eating fewer meals away from home reverses a decades-long trend. According to the report, from 1970 to 2006, expenditures increased from 26 percent to 42 percent on meals eaten outside the home. Only 18 percent of calories were consumed away from home in 1977-1978; by 2005-2006, this had grown to 37.5 percent.
That increase could have seriously impacted American’s diet and health. Food consumed when eating out “tends to be of lower nutritional quality — containing more total fat, saturated fat, sodium, and cholesterol and less fiber and calcium — than food prepared at home,” the report said.
This is visible in the tables comparing the three periods. As food away from home began to comprise less of the share of daily caloric intake, calorie and cholesterol levels fell, while fiber intake increased.
In the unconditional results, between 2005-2006 and 2009-2010, calories consumed away from home fell on average 165.93, or by 5.89 percent. Fast food calories dropped 2.92 percent (83.95 calories). The percent of calories from fat dipped by 0.94 and 0.64 for the percent of calories from fat. Cholesterol intake was 24 milligrams less, and fiber intake was up 1.4 grams.
The numbers change depending on what factor is controlled for. In general, the calorie differential decreases while other factors, like the percent of calories from fat, fall further.
“We are pleased to hear that this study finds improvements in several key areas of the American diet,” Michael R. Taylor, deputy commissioner for foods and veterinary medicine at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, said in a press release for the report.
The report also indicates that people now believe they have more control over their weight. Compared to 2007, in 2010, the number of people who believed they could change their body and diet increased by three percentage points.
“When individuals believe that their actions directly affect their body weight, they might be more inclined to make healthier food choices,” said study author Jessica Todd of the Economic Research Service.