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Calorie and nutrient intake over time

For many years, I’ve noticed that physical activity is a great way to maintain or lose weight because being active adds to your life. It’s a positive thing. Many people instantly tell me they don’t like being active, but I quickly and consistently find things they like doing that are active that they didn’t realise could count. For example, just popping out for a walk is important if you do no activity at all.

When you want to get control over your weight, I want to explain why activity is, in my opinion, a better thing to focus on than the calories you eat.

Take a look at the graph below. What it shows is the average calorie intake in the UK between 1940 (yes, during wartime rationing) and 2000.

uk calorie intake 1940-2000

What you see is that we actually ate over 400 calories more during World War II, when obesity was extremely rare, compared to the year 2000, when obesity was a huge concern.

Given that the data is from the goverment department Defra I feel this is pretty compelling evidence that the idea of losing weight and preventing obesity by eating less just doesn’t add up. Either that or there are some serious flaws in how the government collects and presents information.

We’re also told that more of our calories should come from carbohydrate and less from fat. The chart below shows that we used to achieve this much better than we do now.

UK percent energy intake 1948 - 2000

So if we’re eating so much less, how come we’re so much bigger than we used to be? What’s changed? We all know what’s changed, but we take it for granted. We’re just so much less active than we ever used to be.

Years ago, we used to walk or cycle to work or the shops. We’d walk up stairs. Many of our jobs involved physical labour. So we spent a lot of calories just getting through our days that we don’t spend any more. The key is that our bodies are designed for an active lifestyle, not a sedentary one. I haven’t been able to track down the statistics on activity over time, mainly because no one thought to record them. Most people don’t think of measuring activity because they believe that we are what we eat instead of what we do, but when I find the stats, I’ll post them here.

Importantly, it’s also logical that if we eat less food, we’re probably consuming fewer nutrients than we used to. The data from Defra indicates this isn’t the case for most nutrients, which is encouraging.

UK Intake of Calcium, Vitamin A, Retinol and ß-Carotene 1940-2000 source: defra
UK intake of Sodium, Thiamin, Ribo-flavin, Vitamin D 1940-2000 source: defra
UK intake of Iron, Nicotinic acid and equivalent, Vitamin C 1940-2000 source: defra

I showed the data in multiple graphs because the amount required of each nutrient varies wildly. So, I grouped the nutrients into similar values. One or two of the nutrients, mainly the vitamin A equivalents and Retinol, seem to have declined over time, but the values of the others have remained relatively stable or increased.

The point is that while our overall calories may have been reduced, our micronutrients appear to have stayed the same. Why is a big debate, but the idea that we all need supplements is not supported.


The data came from the Nutshist spreadsheet on the Defra website. I created the graphs by uploading the data as a google spreadsheet

This post first appeared on my original blog colchambers

Further references

Finding correct, reliable and relevant data has been the hardest part of the challenge. Some of the related data is below though comparisons are hard due to the varying nature of the data.

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