The State of the American Diet

October 22, 2010

American diets are not meeting dietary federal recommendations, says a recent study from the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Maryland.

American diets are not meeting dietary federal recommendations, says a recent study from the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Maryland. The study found that the majority of the population did not meet recommendations for all of the nutrient-rich food groups, except for the total grains, meat, and beans categories.

To conduct the study, researchers looked at data from the 2001-2004 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), translating quantities of food reported in a 24-hour period into amounts of various food groups from the USDA MyPyramid Database. Dr. Susan Krebs-Smith, study co-author, says that although we’ve known for a while that the average American diet is not on par with dietary recommendations, we did not have a sense of how widespread the problems actually were.

“This analysis indicates that nearly the entire US population consumes a diet with fewer vegetables and whole grains than recommended and that a large majority under-consume fruits, milk, and oils relative to recommendations,” says Krebs-Smith. 

Indeed, results revealed an overconsumption of solid fats, added sugars and alcoholic beverages, and levels below recommendations for eight food groups, including total fruits, whole fruits, several types of vegetables, whole grains and milk. Dark green vegetables, orange vegetables, legumes and whole grains were the most under-consumed of the food groups.

While these findings were widespread across all age groups, two to three year-olds had the lowest rates of inadequacy for fruit, veggies, legumes and milk. In terms of gender, more men than women over-consume alcohol, and 90% of women aged 19 to 30 did not meet recommendations for total fruits, whole fruits, vegetables and milk. 

“Parents or caretakers generally supply the food for toddlers and preschool children, and presumably try to provide wholesome choices. Nonetheless, although two to three-year-olds had the lowest rates of inadequacy, the percentages of young children not meeting recommendations were still unacceptably high. As children age, their exposure to food environments outside of the home grows, which speaks to the need for attention to the quality of foods and beverages available in schools and daycares, restaurants, and other settings to enable children to make healthy choices,” says Krebs-Smith.

Meanwhile, recommended maximum intakes of meat and beans were exceeded by over 10% of respondents in the majority of the age groups. Also, over 10% of individuals in most age groups exceeded the maximum recommendations for total grains. Eighty percent of persons 71 and older over-consume solid fats, added sugars and alcohol.

Dr. Sharon Kirkpatrick, one of the study co-authors, says that the poor quality of the American diet evident from this study is consistent with both the high rates of obesity in this country as well as with the growing food insecurity crisis. In particular, evidence of consumption of too much energy from added sugars and solid fats and of too few nutrient-rich foods such as whole grain products and fruits and vegetables, she says, suggests that it would be difficult for most individuals to meet their nutrient needs while staying within their caloric needs. 

“The poor quality of Americans' diets illustrated by this analysis is also consistent with experiences of difficulty meeting basic food needs due to financial constraints known as food insecurity,” says Kirkpatrick. “Markers of food insecurity include reliance on a few basic foods and eating a less varied diet, and previous studies show associations between food insecurity and compromised intakes of nutrient-rich food groups such as milk products and fruits and vegetables.”

But even if poor diet choices and issues of food insecurity were to be properly addressed, there are still other problems to contend with. Krebs-Smith conducted another study earlier in the year on the U.S. food supply and found that there is not enough healthy food available to meet current dietary guidelines – even if consumers wanted to do so. (See our article on the U.S Food Supply study here).

With individuals across a range of income groups and ages eating less than optimal diets and a food supply flowing with too many fats and sugar and too few fruits and vegetables, the need for intervention – on both the individual and environmental levels – has never been clearer. Without this intervention, Krebs-Smith says U.S. diets will continue to diverge from recommendations and perpetuate the obesity epidemic and the prevalence of other diet-related chronic diseases.

“Individuals need to have a clearer sense of what constitutes a nutritious diet, because recommended dietary patterns are radically different from what Americans generally consume. American diets reflect the mix of foods available in the marketplace, so the food industry needs to acknowledge that in a truly healthy food environment the nutritious choice would be the default rather than the exception,” says Krebs-Smith.


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