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The American Diet Needs Improvement

Do you think your diet is up to snuff? It may be time to think twice. No matter your age, race, or socioeconomic status, chances are your diet is nowhere near as healthy as it should be, according to a new study published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

The study used information from the Healthy Eating Index–2005, a measure of diet quality that assessed how well individuals met the 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Responses were collected from 8,272 Americans – 3,286 children (ages 2-17), 3,690 adults (ages 18-64) and 1,296 older adults (age 65+) – to compare what they ate during the course of one day to the recommendations of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

“Regardless of socioeconomic status, age, race and education, the American diet as a whole needs to be improved.”

Differences were assessed by age, gender, race, income, and education level; each group was assigned a score between zero and 100 based on the percentage of USDA-recommended foods they consumed daily, foods such as fruits, vegetables, legumes, grains, dairy, and meat.

Of all the subgroups, seniors scored the highest with 65, indicating that they met the USDA standards better than younger individuals. Even within the senior group, the oldest participants (75+ years) had a higher total score than those 65-74 years of age. The adult and children groups each scored only 56 by comparison, with adults aged 55-64 and children aged 2-5 receiving the highest scores. However, all groups fell exceedingly short of a perfect 100.

Across all three age groups, females had higher scores than males, particularly with regard to consumption of fruit and vegetables.

By race, Hispanics received higher scores than African Americans and whites in many food groups. Hispanic children consumed more fruit and than white children, and more fruit than black children. Hispanic adults ate more fruit and vegetables than African American adults and more fruit than white adults.

Income had a surprising effect in that while adults met more recommendations as income increased, children from low-income families were actually meeting more of the USDA dietary recommendations in several food groups when compared to children from higher-income families. This difference may be due, in part, to families’ participation in food-assistance programs, including the National School Breakfast and Lunch Programs.

And as education increased, so did scores. Adults with college diplomas scored higher in fruit, vegetables, and whole grains. Conversely, individuals with less than a high school education scored higher in unhealthy food groups, including saturated fat and sodium.

Given the low overall scores, study lead author Hazel Hiza of the USDA’s Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion says, “Regardless of socioeconomic status, age, race and education, the American diet as a whole needs to be improved.”

The Bottom Line

This study merely confirms what the growing body of research has been telling us all along – we need to eat more fruits and vegetables! There’s something terribly wrong with American food culture when the best any of us can do is the equivalent of a D grade.

Our diet has a direct effect our health; having a poor diet is one of the key causes of obesity, cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, type-2 diabetes, osteoporosis, and certain types of cancer, and it lowers your quality of life tremendously. It is alarming that most of us, especially children, are not getting the necessary nutrition.

Simply improving your diet can help prevent or even reverse the onset of chronic disease. The easiest and best way to do this is by increasing the amount of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and good fats in our diet and reducing consumption of sodium, saturated fats, sugars, and simple carbohydrates.

While USDA guidelines are a start to improving your eating habits, they are influenced by policy backed by lobbyists for major food manufacturers. A better resource would be the Healthy Eating Plate, which pushes for consumption of whole grains and larger servings of vegetables. Also, the less processed your food, the better.

Remember, while it is a key factor, diet isn’t the only element in improving health. No matter how healthy your diet is, to stay fit and increase longevity, it needs to be coupled with physical activity for maximum benefit.

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