A person pushes away a fast food sandwich.
Youngsters and their parents are increasingly getting the message: An unhealthy diet comes with serious consequences. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

Calorie consumption is on the decline in the U.S., at least according to a detailed analysis by the New York Times.

But is the population healthier as a result? That’s another question altogether.

“We aren’t out of the woods yet,” said Elizabeth “Libby” Downs, MS, RD, a certified diabetes educator with the Spectrum Health Medical Group Center for Diabetes & Endocrinology.

“The public’s knowledge of nutrition is higher than it has ever been, which is wonderful, but we still eat huge portions, lots of packaged foods and very few fruits and vegetables.”

The experts are quick to remind you that food quality and food quantity are two completely different things.

“Consuming fewer calories isn’t the same as consuming healthier food,” echoed Jessica Corwin, MPH, RD, community nutrition educator for Spectrum Health’s Healthier Communities.

The Times report drew from food diaries compiled through a National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, Nielsen data on food purchases, and U.S. Department of Agriculture data on food production and imports. All three sources reinforced the idea that Americans are consuming fewer calories—primarily fewer calorie-laden beverages—than they did a decade ago.

The changes have been most dramatic in households with children, according to the report. The findings are consistent with what Downs sees on a daily basis.

“When I get a patient who has been newly diagnosed with diabetes, often one of the first things they’ll tell me is that they cut out drinking sugary soda,” she said. “Some cut it out altogether and some are going to diet drinks.”

While the changes haven’t triggered a decline in obesity rates for adults, at least not yet, the obesity rate in children ages 2 to 5 has decreased dramatically, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study. And perhaps most importantly, the research indicates a reversal in the rate of calorie consumption, which has been on the rise since the 1970s.

“I feel like this generation of parents is more health conscious,” Corwin said of those with young children. “These parents are trying to make more of an effort, so they stop offering sugary drinks and encourage their kids to be more active and make healthy choices.”

On the whole, society has certainly made it easier for people to work toward reducing their calorie intake in recent years.

Corwin said she was grocery shopping recently when she saw cartons of chocolate milk that contained low-calorie sweeteners. It demonstrated to her that manufacturers are trying to make the nutrition labels on their products look better, even if they have to add less healthy ingredients or subtract the healthy ones, she said.

And, in an attempt to at least appear healthy, restaurants are making changes, too. It’s difficult to walk into any café or fast-food restaurant without seeing a chart or menu outlining the fat and calorie content of your next meal.

It would be impossible to miss the countless policies, messages and programs out there today, Corwin said.

To name a few: improved school lunches, menu labeling, wellness programs in workplaces, taxes on sugary soft drinks, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s phase-out of trans fats, campaigns that encourage children to play outside.

There’s also a lot more awareness about the importance of physical activity and its role in curbing obesity, said Kim DeLaFuente, MA, ACSM-CPD, community exercise educator with Spectrum Health Healthier Communities.

But the amount of time people spend on their smartphones, computers, tablets and electronic game consoles continues to rise, she said.

“I believe that there is a light at the end of the tunnel, but I’m just not sure we’ve gotten there yet,” DeLaFuente said.

The best way for parents to keep their children on the right path? Modeling behavior, both in exercise and dieting. Go on a bike ride with your kids or take them to the park, DeLaFuente said.

And when it comes to nutrition, remember that home-cooked meals are the best solution—you can control the ingredients and the portion size.