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NewsBites October 2016 Issue

Better-Off Americans Eating a Bit Better

Americans are eating a little healthier than they were back in 1999, but the improvements are largest among upper-income households. "Almost twice as many Americans at low incomes have poor diets compared to those at the highest income level," noted Dariush Mozaffarian, MD, DrPH, dean of Tufts' Friedman School and senior author of a new study on trends in American diets. Published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, the study used data from national nutrition surveys (NHANES) on nearly 34,000 adults covering 1999 to 2012.

Overall during this period, Americans reported eating almost half an additional serving a day of whole grains, a quarter of an extra serving of nuts and seeds, more whole fruits, and slightly more seafood than in 1999. Sugary drink consumption was down substantially by about half a serving per day. But, in contrast, there was no improvement in intakes of total fruits and vegetables, saturated fat, processed meats or sodium. Scoring intakes using a system developed by the American Heart Association, dietary quality rose by about 10%, from 19.0 points to 21.2 points out of a possible total of 50. An expanded scoring scale that includes nuts and seeds, legumes, shellfish, processed meat and saturated fats improved from 35.1 to 38.5 points out of 80.

But even these small gains were different by income, ethnicity and education levels. All income groups ate more whole grains, but only higher-income adults also cut their intake of refined-grain foods like white bread. Although sugary beverages decreased in all groups, higher-income Americans still drink fewer sugary beverages than low-income people. Those with higher incomes have doubled their intake of nuts and seeds, a trend absent at lower income levels. And while higher-income adults have added almost two daily servings of whole fruit since 1999, there was almost no change further down the economic ladder.

"The good news is that diets of Americans are slowly improving in many respects," Dr. Mozaffarian commented. "The bad news is that we still have a long way to go, especially with respect to excess refined grains, starches, processed meats, and salt; and, perhaps worse, that the dietary divide between rich and poor is growing. These findings call for strong policies and programs to improve the food supply for all Americans."

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