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Unhealthy diets are still prevalent in the US, study shows

paleo diets

Despite a decrease in the number of people in the United States reporting unhealthy diets over the past 20 years, more than a third of adults still struggle with poor dietary habits. Research from Tufts University, published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, highlights significant disparities in dietary improvements among different socioeconomic groups.

Key findings

  • Fewer people report having an unhealthy diet, but the number still represents more than a third of adults nationwide.
  • Improvements in diet were unevenly distributed, with wealthier and more educated individuals making greater strides than lower-income, less-educated adults.
  • Healthy diets are high in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains and low in processed foods, salt, and saturated fats.

Between 1999 and 2020, the percentage of adults with poor diets decreased from nearly 49% to about 36%. However, the number of people with intermediate diets increased from 50% to 61%, and those with ideal diets rose slightly from 0.66% to 1.58%.

Disparities in dietary improvements

Dietary improvements were more pronounced among well-educated, wealthier, and younger adults, as well as those with private health insurance. For example, among the lowest income bracket, poor diet rates decreased from nearly 52% to 47%, compared to a decrease from 50% to 43% among middle-income individuals. The highest income group saw the most significant changes, with poor diet rates falling from 45% to 30%.

Dr. Mir Ali, a bariatric surgeon, noted, “The improvement in diet seemed to be proportional to the number of resources available to the person. Barriers include education on proper diet and making healthy food affordable and easily available.”

Addressing systemic issues

Registered dietitian Kelsey Costa emphasized the need to address systemic issues such as education gaps and limited access to health care and nutritious foods. “Persistent disparities indicate systemic issues. Addressing these root causes would require multi-faceted approaches, including policy changes to improve education, food security, and health care access for disadvantaged groups,” Costa said.

Practical steps for individuals

Experts suggest several actions individuals can take to improve their diets, even on a budget:

  • Utilize free community resources or online platforms that teach how to stretch food budgets and make healthier meals.
  • Learn to read food labels and understand the impact of certain ingredients on health.
  • Engage in meal planning to make the most of available resources.
  • Start by replacing one meal with a healthier alternative or finding healthier snacks.

“Starting by replacing one meal with a healthier alternative would be a start,” Dr. Ali advised. “Also, finding healthier alternatives to high-calorie snacks may be another place to start.”

By taking these steps, individuals can make meaningful changes to their diets, contributing to better overall health and well-being.