For decades, it has been difficult for public health officials to come up with anything good to say about the American diet. The nation’s notoriously unhealthy eating habits have been blamed for rising obesity rates and increased risk of heart disease, among other problems such as generating unsettling amounts of food waste and polluting the environment with methane gas from livestock. 

Finally, some good news -- the New York Times recently reported that Americans have begun to eat fewer calories and that the steady rise of the nation’s obesity rate seems to have leveled off. The biggest dietary change over time seems to have come in American’s consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages. The number of daily calories U.S. consumers took in through these drinks dropped by 186 from 2004 to 2012. 

While that’s encouraging, it’s certainly not the end of a decadeslong effort to bring America’s burgeoning waistline under control. Today, U.S. residents still purchase (and presumably guzzle) about 30 gallons of regular soda each year. Furthermore, adults consumed 2,134 calories a day in 2010. Compare that to the 1980s, when Americans took in 1,850 calories a day. Or, consider that the recommended number of calories per day is about 2,000, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture -- and it’s clear that America’s dietary patterns still have a ways to go before they can be considered healthy. 

One issue is that though Americans are eating fewer calories, they still aren’t choosing the best meals. For starters, 90 percent of Americans consume far too much salt, according to data recently released by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In addition, four out of five U.S. consumers eat too few fruits and vegetables.  

Certain foods seem to contribute to the nation's pattern of unhealthy eating more than others. Last year, researchers with the U.S. Department of Agriculture found that sandwiches were partly to blame for the country’s salt overload -- about half of Americans eat a sandwich on any given day and those sandwiches account for one-fifth of daily salt intake. The calorie-laden diet of most Americans revolves around a few key categories -- grain-based desserts such as cookies and cakes are the primary culprit while pizza, alcoholic beverages and pasta are among the leading accomplices, according to data compiled from the 2010 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee by Harvard Medical School. Overall, about 61 percent of the calories contained in the typical American’s grocery store purchases come from processed food, Time reports

The Food and Drug Administration has proposed a nutrition label change which the agency says should make it easier for Americans to further cut calorie consumption based on one major driver that slips into many processed foods -- added sugars. The FDA wants to debut labels that break out “added sugars” as a separate category from total sugars, much in the way that saturated fats are currently delineated as a subcategory of total fats. The FDA further suggests that added sugars should make up no more than 10 percent of the calories that a person consumes in a day, which is about 200 calories for the average American -- and the label should help consumer to make this judgement on the go.

Soda remains one of the top 10 contributors to calories in the American diet, based mostly on added sugars, so the dramatic shift toward lower consumption of these beverages and the FDA's efforts to clarify their contribution to the problem could bring more positive results in the future.