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Americans’ Diets Are (a Little Bit) Better Than They Were 15 Years Ago

But the gap is increasing between richer, better-educated, white Americans and everyone else.

By Francie Diep


(Photo: Olearys/Flickr)

Although we’re notoriously unhealthy eaters, it turns out Americans can change their diets for good — even if it’s a bit slowly and unevenly. That seems to be the takeaway from a new survey of how Americans’ habits changed between 2000 and 2012.

On average, American adults now eat more whole grains, nuts, and seeds, and they drink less soda, according to the study, which was published today in the Journal of the American Medical Association. But we’re not eating any more fruits and vegetables than we used to, nor less salt, saturated fat, or processed meats, such as hot dogs and bologna. Plus, while Americans of various races and income levels improved their diets over the last 15 years, richer, better-educated, white Americans improved the most, widening the gap between the country’s privileged and underserved.

Small changes can go a long way.

The study wasn’t designed to answer whether their altered diets have made Americans healthier, but all foods and nutrients evaluated in the study have been linked to health. Thus, the study’s authors think the dietary changes they documented may help explain concurrent positive health trends, including a drop in the rates at which Americans have died of strokes and heart disease, and a plateauing of obesity rates in the country. Small changes can go a long way.

Nevertheless, the study highlights several dietary habits that might benefit from a renewed policy focus. American adults still eat only half of their recommended fruits and vegetables in a day, for example, and it’s been that way for a long time. In addition, it’s clear that public-health messages aren’t reaching certain demographics as effectively as others—namely people with lower incomes and less education, as well as black and Mexican Americans. (The study examined only white, black, and Mexican Americans; the authors write that not enough people of other ethnicities answered the surveys to offer significant results.)

Public-health groups have tried fixes to these lingering problems. More and more food banks are trying to offer fresh produce, while government institutes now publish free, heart-healthy, Hispanic-American and African-American recipes. Whether people take to these efforts remains to be seen.