Towards the universal diet: humans are increasingly eating alike

Humans are eating more and more alike. A study with data from the 1960s shows a trend towards a universal diet. Convergence is most pronounced among the populations of North America, Europe and East Asia. In China, for example, meat consumption has increased eightfold. The changes have been warmer in Southeast Asia and Latin America. Finally, in Africa, especially sub-Saharan Africa, they continue to eat just as little and badly as they did 50 years ago,

A group of researchers has analyzed consumption data from 18 large food groups in 173 countries from 1961 to 2013. Most of the information comes from the food balance sheets made by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. The results of the study, published in Nature Food, show major changes in those five decades and in most countries

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"There seems to be a partial convergence in the global diet," says University of Kent (UK) researcher James Bentham. "It is characterized by a relatively higher consumption of foods of animal origin (meat, milk, eggs...) sugars, but also because of increasing plant consumption," he adds

China, South Korea and Taiwan are the countries where meat consumption has grown the most

The data shows that there are two large almost parallel trends. In densely populated East Asian countries, traditionally plant-based, there has been an explosive growth in meat consumption. The most prominent case is that of China. The proportion of four food groups in 1961 was as follows: 57% of the diet were cereals, 21% starchy roots, such as potatoes, 2% were meats and 1% sugars. In 2013, the change has been drastic: cereals, in particular rice, account for 47% of the diet, tubers have dropped to 5%, meat has risen to 16%, and sugars have doubled.

To the opposite end, the Us is still very carnivorous, but has reduced its intake of meat derivatives by almost 20%. In fact, the largest relative reduction in the proportion of meat and, in parallel, the largest supply of vegetables has been in six countries of Anglo-Saxon descent, but it is a virtually global trend.

"Countries such as the US and UK have moved away from extremely high consumption of meat, eggs and milk, although they still have an obesity-provoking diet. Meanwhile, China has gone from a malnutrition diet to an overnutrition diet, and thus rapidly increasing its obesity rates. Thus, the average body mass index of Chinese men has increased from 19.8 in 1975 to 24.8 in 2016, according to the NCD-RisC health researchers project involving some of the study's authors.

The map shows the changes in the food index. Darker countries, such as China, have undergone the greatest changes in their diet. Bentham et al./Nature Food

Although the work does not delve into the causes of so much change, the authors point out some. "We know that there has been accelerated economic growth in China, South Korea and Taiwan since 1960," says Bentham. This economic connection also seems to exist in other regions. In both southern and eastern Europe, there have been significant increases in the contribution of animal proteins to the diet in recent decades. Another force for change would be globalization: "There have been major changes in trade patterns. For example, Canada, Ireland or the United Kingdom have year-round access to fruits and vegetables that do not occur naturally in these countries," adds the British researcher

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The three major regions where there have been the least changes are Southeast Asia, where their diet still depends on cereals, particularly rice, or in most of Latin America, where starch-rich tubers dominate. But it is in sub-Saharan Africa that there has been little change in the percentages, already scarce in quantity, of different foods. And, as the study authors say, the only change has been worse: "They now have problems of both malnutrition and overnutrition, so while many don't have to eat, others take enough or too many calories, albeit of poor quality."