Americans have cut back on sugary drinks and are eating more whole grains, fish and nuts, a new study finds. But as Americans overall are eating better, improvements have been much more modest among minorities and the poor.
The study, published Tuesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association, is a snapshot of the nation’s eating habits from 1999 and 2012. During that time, Americans eating a poor diet fell from 56 percent to 46 percent.
“People are hearing the message that diet is crucial to their health and they’re making specific improvements over time,” said Dariush Mozaffarian, M.D., co-author of the study and dean of Tufts University’s Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy.
Still, he cautioned, most Americans have a long way to go. Although more people are eating an “ideal” diet, they represent less than 2 percent of the population.
Yet as Americans with more education and higher incomes are eating healthier, minority groups and low-income Americans are making much slower progress in improving their diets.
Among whites, those with a poor diet dropped from 54 percent to 43 percent. The drop was much more modest for blacks and Mexican Americans. When looking just at income, the gap appears to have widened between rich and poor.
The disparities worry Heather Kitzman-Ulrich, Ph.D., director of research and development at the Baylor Scott and White Health Diabetes Health and Wellness Institute in Dallas.
“I think this diet data just reinforces what we already know—that we are making improvements but the disparities are getting worse,” she said. “This is really important in our lower-income ethnic minority populations because these are the individuals who are having the highest rate of chronic disease.”
Those diseases include obesity, diabetes and other problems that can lead to heart disease, Dr. Mozaffarian said. That’s why it is important, he said, for researchers to understand the dietary habits of low-income earners and those with limited education.
Dr. Mozaffarian is a cardiologist who has studied how dietary patterns affect risk factors for heart disease. He said such information may aid primary care doctors in helping at-risk patients improve their diet—and, by extension, their overall health.
Other findings show differences by age and sex. Women and young adults between ages 20 and 34 had the most significant improvements in diet.
Researchers looked at data from nearly 34,000 adults who participated in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. They scored diets based on American Heart Association recommendations that say an ideal diet emphasizes fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy products, poultry, fish and nuts, and limits red meat, sodium and sugary foods and drinks.