Food trends: why we eat the way we do

by Carolyn Thomas

Some anthropologists believe that the evolutionary pressure that led to bi-pedalism (walking on two legs) was just our hairy ancestors’ adaptation to a changing world that required more far-reaching travel in search of food.

We’ve been obsessed with searching for food ever since those hairy ancestors took that first upright walk and dug up some lovely potato-like tubers for dinner.

The trouble is that food trends in the Western world have strayed so far from what our bodies actually need that our heart health is now seriously compromised by what we put into our mouths every day.

According to the USDA’s Continued Survey of Food Intakes by Individuals, the average North American eats just one and one-half servings of vegetables and one serving of fruit per day. (That compares with the recommended five servings of each for optimal heart health).

Consumption of milk and eggs has been declining, while high-fat-content cheese consumption has gone up. Vegetable fats are increasingly being used instead of animal fats, but total fat consumption is still high.

Sixty percent of us eat processed snack foods regularly, consuming about 20% of our calories from snacks. Because almost half of us skip breakfast, and one-fourth skip lunch, unhealthy between-meal snacking contributes significantly to our daily nutrient intake. Our current annual consumption of sugar/artificial sweeteners is 150 pounds per person. Our total soft drink use has increased by 300% since the 1950s.

Fewer meals are prepared at home; about 25% of calories eaten by adult men and women are eaten away from home. Our ‘home-cooked’ meals now often come pre-washed, pre-cooked, pre-baked, pre-processed, and pre-sliced.

And those meals are taking up more room on our plates. A study by the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention reports that serving sizes at restaurant chains have become 2-5 times larger than they were in the 1970s. (Even cookbook publishers have followed suit by increasing portion sizes in recipes). During the 30-year period covered by the study, obesity rates doubled, and two-thirds of us are now considered overweight.

In my (very) short lifetime, here are just a few examples of how both our socio-economic influences and our eating habits have changed:

The 1950s:

  • North American mothers return to the home after the war effort
  • Postwar baby boom = lots of babies
  • Construction of national highway systems sprouts roadside burger diners along major routes
  • Packaged meals suddenly widely available
  • Swanson’s TV Dinners introduced, 1953
  • McDonald’s burger restaurant opens in Des Plaines, Illinois, 1955

The 1960s:

  • Growing middle class with money to spend
  • Introduction of Julia Child’s French cooking
  • Take-out, drive-through fast food chains spring up
  • Tim Hortons opens first donut shop in Hamilton, Ontario, 1964
  • Hippie/back-to-the-land movement brings demand for unprocessed, made-from-scratch foods
  • Vegetarian trend increases

The 1970s:

  • Growing inflation
  • Major influx of Asian immigrants to North America
  • Growing interest in Asian cuisine
  • Starbucks opens in Seattle, 1971
  • Diet for a Small Planet published, 1971
  • Growing demand for organic and fresh
  • Middle class dinner parties now highlight ethnic dishes
  • Tim Hortons introduces popular Timbits (bite-sized donut holes) in 1976

The 1980s:

  • ‘Nouvelle Cuisine’ explodes: diners willing to pay more to eat far less
  • Return to simplicity in late 1980s
  • ‘Slow Food’ movement launched in Italy to protest opening of a McDonald’s near historic Spanish Steps in Rome, 1986
  • Exploration of different tastes (e.g. TexMex, Ethiopian, Thai)
  • Tim Hortons adds soup and chili to its coffee and donut menu

The 1990s:

  • The Internet puts foods at consumers’ fingertips
  • Boom in reduced-fat, low-fat, fat-free
  • Tim Hortons adds multigrain bagels with low-fat cream cheese to its menu
  • Growth in gourmet ‘catered’ take-home meal businesses
  • Renewed movement toward simplicity

The 2000s:

  • The ‘slow food’ movement takes off
  • Superfruits like pomegranate, blueberries and acai berries hit the news
  • Tim Hortons now accounts for 62% of all coffee sales in Canada (Starbucks is #2 at just 7%)
  • Ethical eating: growing concerns about the environment, animal welfare and sustainability fuel growing concerns about the environment, animal welfare and fairly traded foods
  • ‘Authentic’ is in, ‘artificial’ is out
  • Alarming childhood obesity rates mean growing interest in healthier diets
  • Greener choices – sustainability and food safety (more on Consumer Reports)
  • The ‘eat local’ bible The 100-Mile Diet is published, 2007

Find out about more trends for the coming years.

See also:

5 thoughts on “Food trends: why we eat the way we do

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  2. Such a cool topic – this makes me wonder how we will one day look back at what foods are “in” these days!? Very creative – thank you from a new subscriber to your interesting website.


  3. A fun topic, lots of info here and a very thought-provoking topic. It makes me think that my immigrant great grandparents, who ate simple plain food mostly produced on their farm, were on the right track. They didn’t care about “trends” as they were busy surviving. Thanks for this….


  4. This is so interesting. I’ve passed this on to my sibs – we often have conversations like this around the dinner table! THANKS!


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