US eating habits improve a bit — except among poor

By Lindsey Tanner, Associated Press

Published: Mon, Sept. 1, 2014, 12:00 a.m. MDT

 In this April 24, 2014 file photo, a variety of healthy fruits and vegetables are displayed for sale at a market in Washington. A 12-year study released Monday, Sept. 1, 2014, shows a steady improvement in American's eating habits, but food choices remain less than ideal.

In this April 24, 2014 file photo, a variety of healthy fruits and vegetables are displayed for sale at a market in Washington. A 12-year study released Monday, Sept. 1, 2014, shows a steady improvement in American's eating habits, but food choices remain less than ideal.

(J. Scott Applewhite, File, Associated Press)

CHICAGO — Americans' eating habits have improved — except among the poor, evidence of a widening wealth gap when it comes to diet. Yet even among wealthier adults, food choices remain far from ideal, a 12-year study found.

On an index of healthy eating where a perfect score is 110, U.S. adults averaged just 40 points in 1999-2000, climbing steadily to 47 points in 2009-10, the study found.

Scores for low-income adults were lower than the average and barely budged during the years studied. They averaged almost four points lower than those for high-income adults at the beginning; the difference increased to more than six points in 2009-10.

Higher scores mean greater intake of heart-healthy foods including vegetables, fruits, whole grains and healthy fats, and a high score means a low risk of obesity and chronic illnesses including heart disease, strokes and diabetes. Low scores mean people face greater chances for developing those ailments.

The widening rich-poor diet gap is disconcerting and "will have important public health implications," said study co-author Dr. Frank Hu of the Harvard School of Public Health. Diet-linked chronic diseases such as diabetes have become more common in Americans in general, and especially in the poor, he noted.

"Declining diet quality over time may actually widen the gap between the poor and the rich," Hu said.

Harvard School of Public Health researchers developed the healthy diet index used for the study. It is similar to federal dietary guidelines but features additional categories including red and processed meats, sugar-sweetened beverages and alcohol.

The study authors used that index along with government estimates on trans fat intake to evaluate information in 1999-2010 national health surveys that included interviews with people about their eating habits. The results are published Monday in JAMA Internal Medicine.

Hu said the widening diet gap reflects an income gap that deepened during the recent financial crisis, which likely made healthy food less affordable for many people. Hu also noted that inexpensive highly processed foods are often widely available in low-income neighborhoods.

The overall diet improvement was largely due to decreased intake of foods containing trans fats but the disappointing results point to a need for policy changes including better nutrition education, Hu said.

In recent years the government and manufacturers have moved to phase out use of artificial trans fats in foods including processed cookies, cakes, frozen pizza and margarines. Trans fats contribute to unhealthy cholesterol levels and can increase heart disease risks. These fats are made by adding hydrogen to vegetable oil to improve texture and shelf life.

The study authors say their results are consistent with an earlier report showing that "nearly the entire U.S. population fell short of meeting federal dietary recommendations."

The federal guidelines are updated every five years and new ones will be issued next year. The current recommendations emphasize limiting intake of trans fats, sodium, processed foods and added sugars. They don't specify amounts but encourage diets high in whole grains, vegetables and fruits.

The Harvard index has a similar emphasis with some specifics; to get a top score would include eating daily more than two cups of vegetables, at least four servings of fruit and at least one ounce of nuts.

A JAMA Internal Medicine editorial says the Harvard diet index isn't perfect because it puts equal emphasis on various foods that may not contribute equally to health. Still, the study highlights a "growing chasm" that is a public health concern, the editorial says. It suggests that government efforts to close the gap with programs including food stamps may be insufficient and that limiting government benefits to cover only healthful foods might be a better strategy.

Online: JAMA Internal Medicine: http://jamainternalmedicine.com

Federal dietary guidelines: http://tinyurl.com/9yjgeoz

AP Medical Writer Lindsey Tanner can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/LindseyTanner

1. DN Subscriber
Cottonwood Heights, UT,
Sept. 1, 2014

Come on, Associated Propaganda.

Trying to ling poverty to poor eating habits and implying some sort of causation is flat out dishonest reporting.

Perhaps the cause of the poor to eat poorly is the result of their own bad choices. We teach nutrition in school, so go to school and learn about it. We provide EBT cards that will buy healthy food, or you can buy junk food, or in some cases trade teh EBT card for money to buy drugs.

If a person decides to eat right, it can be done by the poor just as much as anyone else.

No more government programs or massive spending is needed. In fact, cutting EBT benefits and going back to distribution of surplus food may actually improve nutrition.

2. My2Cents
Taylorsville, UT,
Sept. 2, 2014

I wonder how they conducted this study. Did someone follow a poor person from the store to their home and watch them prepare the food and what they ate? Or did they just follow the money of poor people and those on food stamps eating out all the time and buying pre-mfg meals and tacos? What ever their means of conducting this study is very flawed and not relative to incomes or social status.

In fact the poor people who don't have food stamps must by basic raw foods and home prepare them eat better that people with food stamps or restaurants where adulteration of edible food is destroyed making it unhealthy food. Sandwich shops engorge sandwiches with adulterated fillings and substitute indigestible flavoring and call it nutritious, bunk.

Everything ever thought or taught about food is being debunked every day by science saying the 4 food groups are the best source of nutrition, nutritionist are theatrical know nothings. The safe oils and adulterated cooking ideas are fast becoming notarized lies and falsehoods. I consider Yogurt as excessive junk eating and unhealthy and excessive to the digestive system that is denying people of a healthy body.

3. Baron Scarpia
Logan, UT,
Sept. 2, 2014

The big challenge is that the poor don't have access to healthy food on two counts: One, many poor urban areas don't have traditional grocery stores and the most accessible foods are at fast foods and convenience stores; and two, healthy food is higher cost and inconvenient.

A new trend is the "food desert" -- places where nutritious food is scarce. As urban areas face dwindling economic prospects (think Detroit), grocery stores have left as well. Studies have found that the poor rely on the dollar meals at fast food restaurants -- which is driven largely by gov't subsidized corn and other agricultural products rooted in corn (e.g. high-fructose corn syrup).

Studies have also followed poor people into grocery stores and have found that the "convenient" packaging of junk food (say, individual-sized chips, soda cans, or candy bars) becomes an easy way to portion meals over buying healthier foods (e.g., kale or slabs of meat).

Sometimes a family may say, we have $10 for dinner and then go to buy 10 dollar meal items. In short, the poor face key obstacles to healthy eating.

4. Mountanman
Hayden, ID,
Sept. 2, 2014

I lived overseas in a very poor country and saw real poverty where millions of people literally struggle to eat everyday. A native friend of mine repeatedly told me he wanted to move to America. I ask him why and his response was, "I want to live in America because in America poor people are fat." Come to think of it, I have never seen a poor person who was obese, except in the USA. In every other country poor people are emaciated, frail and malnourished.