The average American diet has improved since the late ‘90s but there’s still much work to be done, according to a recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
Using national survey data from 1999–2012, this study analyzed recent dietary trends in American adults. Current guidelines recommend a healthy diet including fruits, vegetables and whole grains, with limited salt, added sugars and saturated or “bad” fats. In fact, the American Heart Association has set ambitious goals to improve the American diet by the year 2020 to help combat heart disease—the No. 1 killer of men and women in the United States. But how are we doing in achieving this goal?
To assess our progress, researchers analyzed data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, which surveys Americans about their health and lifestyle each year. Between 1999 and 2012, nearly 34,000 U.S. adults participated in the study, providing detailed information about their everyday diet.
Based on survey responses, researchers assigned each participant with an overall dietary score. The primary score ranged from 0–50 points, with higher scores reflecting greater consumption of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fish and shellfish and lower amounts of sugary beverages and sodium. The secondary score ranged from 0–80 points, with top scores reflecting consumption of nuts, seeds and legumes and limited consumption of processed meat and saturated fat.
The good news is that overall, the average American diet has improved since 1999. Between 1999 and 2012, the primary diet score improved by 12% and the secondary diet score improved by 10%. These changes were mostly due to increased consumption of whole grains, nuts and seeds and decreased consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages. Authors also note that the percentage of adults categorized as having “poor diets” decreased by 10%.
However, we still have plenty of room for improvement. While diet scores have improved, the average primary diet score in 2012 was 21 out of 50, which is low. Nearly 46% of adults still had what’s considered a “poor diet” as of 2012.
Authors also note that diet trends tend to vary by race and income. Improvements in diet were not observed in black or Mexican American adults. Some dietary scores actually worsened among low-income populations.
Based on findings, authors highlight the continued need for promoting healthier diets in the United States. While we’ve made some progress in improving overall diets, changes are lagging in low-income and minority populations. Adherence to the recommended heart-healthy diet remains less than ideal in most Americans. Thus, experts hope that through education, policy change and other interventions, we can continue to improve diet among all Americans.