The numbers are pretty staggering.

By Rebekah Lowin
May 17, 2017
© John Lund / Getty Images

We've heard it a million times since childhood: "Don't leave any food on your plate!"

But when it comes to food waste, we've got way bigger problems than a few leftover pieces of broccoli. On average, Americans throw away billions of pounds of food each year—and a new study shows that, were we to recover it, we'd have enough food to feed millions. Moreover, the study claims, it's the amount of nutrients in that wasted food that should most startle us.

According to Dr. Roni Neff of Johns Hopkins University, who led the first-ever study about wasted nutrients, were we to salvage all that food waste, we'd be able to give a 2,000-calorie diet to 84 percent of the population. That means that not only are we perpetuating the worldwide hunger crisis when we toss a full plate of food, we're also depriving millions of people of important nutrients—including Vitamin D, fiber, and calcium. Published in the Journal of Nutrition and Dietetics, the study based its data on 2012 stats from the U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics, which show that 31 percent to 40 percent of our food is discarded after it's harvested.

"Wasted food is a very serious issue at this point. We're throwing away so much money and so many resources and so much potential nutrients that can make our lives better," Neff, who currently heads Johns Hopkins' Center for a Livable Future, told USA Today

The study reveals that we throw away enough dietary fiber to feed 74 million women or 48 million men and we also throw away enough potassium to feed 59 million Americans. Vitamins A and D as well as magnesium have similarly disheartening amounts.

Since, as Neff points out, "only a portion of discarded food can realistically be made available for human consumption," he still believes that there are certain times when it is appropriate to recover tossed food, and that preventative efforts should be made to curb food waste before it happens. After all, most food that's tossed is somewhere on a spectrum from fresh to merely edible, but overly-cautious expiration dates steer people away from holding onto them. 

As for how can we help on an individual level? Well, Neff believes it's all about understanding the enormity of the problem. That one plate you just scraped into the trash has a much farther-reaching impact than you'd initially think.

"One of the biggest things is just really being aware of it," she concluded.