See The Data Behind the Changing American Diet

It’s obvious from the increase in fast-food chains across America that the times truly are changing. But how exactly have American’s eating habits changed? This was the question that inspired statistician Nathan Yau of Flowing Data to analyze our eating habits over the past few decades.

Yau saw a project by the Open Data Institute on the changing British diet and decided to create a similar visual for the states. The resulting project is an interactive that visualizes stats from the states spanning 1970 to 2013.

The data was provided by the US Department of Agriculture through the Food Availability Data System. Specifically, the interactive looks at average daily consumption per person. Data was gathered, focusing on six food groups; meat, vegetables, fruit, grains, dairy, and fat. Those groups were then broken down into individual items.

Viewers can change the pace of the comparisons or pause them entirely. As the years tick forward, food items move up and down their rows, depending on their popularity. This allows viewers to quickly spot trends within food groups while simultaneously comparing between categories.

The side-by-side comparison allowed for some interesting revelations. Yau found that between 1970 and 2013 whole milk consumption decreased 79 percent. While the majority of the statistics lack causation, in Yau’s writeup he did find explanations for some findings within the chart. He found butter became more popular than margarine in 2003—not because of increased popularity but simply due to the “continuous decline of margarine.” He also looked at a spike in carrot consumption during the ‘90s, where the “average daily consumption increased by more than 60 percent during a 3-year period.”This was attributed to the popularity of baby carrots during the time.

Yau organized the data using R, a software program for statistical computing and graphics. He then visualized his data using d3.js, allowing the data to be easily understood.

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