American diets getting worse

American diets getting worse

Americans across every demographic continue to ignore research and messages about dietary soundness and, instead, spend most of their food budget on food of questionable nutritiona

AMERICANS are not consuming the balanced and healthful diet recommended by the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, and this dietary failure is consistent across all age groups, all ethnic groups, all income groups and both men and women, according to an analysis by the U.S. Economic Research Service (ERS).


Second of two parts


Americans consume far too few fruits and vegetables and far too many frozen meals, refined grains and sugars, and the consequence is costly and prevalent health issues such as excess weight, obesity, cardiovascular diseases and diabetes, as reported in Part 1 of this series (Feedstuffs, Dec. 3).

The analysis, by ERS researchers Richard Volpe and Abigail Okrent, drew these conclusions from Healthy Eating Index (HEI) scores calculated from Nielsen Homescan data on food purchases from grocery stores, i.e., at-home food.

The scores show that Americans have "a long way to go" to comply with the dietary guidelines, Volpe and Okrent said.

Furthermore, according to the study, that "long way to go" is getting longer, not shorter, in that Americans' dietary failure is getting worse, not better.

The Nielsen data covered 1998 through 2006, and Volpe and Okrent said this provided them with a sufficient time frame for determining how food purchasing decisions have changed over time.

Evolving knowledge about the nutrition of foods and beverages should support consumers' understanding about healthful diets, and messaging -- by health professionals and even by food companies and supermarkets -- is promoting more conscientious and healthful food purchasing decisions, Volpe and Okrent said. Accordingly, "there is reason to anticipate" changes in food purchasing trends over time, they said.

Volpe and Okrent created several categories of food based on the dietary guidelines and looked at the annual expenditures Nielsen reported for each category in 1998 and 2006.

They found that the changes in expenditure patterns were mixed in terms of consumers moving toward more healthful diets (Figure).

For instance, people were buying fewer refined grains and more whole grains in 2006 versus 1998. Consumers were buying more low-fat dairy products but were also buying more "regular" dairy products.

Most notable, consumers purchased fewer fruits and vegetables in 2006 versus 1998 and bought more carbonated/sugary beverages and packaged and processed foods.

"Examining food purchases from this broad perspective suggests that food purchase quality has not discernibly improved over time," Volpe and Okrent concluded.


Other influences

The researchers also looked at the effect of geography on healthful food purchases, and here, they did find some substantial differences, with HEI scores for households in northeastern and western states higher than for households in midwestern and southern states.

They said these differences could be due to price variations across the food categories and/or regional food preferences. However, they noted that even in the Northeast, high HEI scores still amounted to just two-thirds of the "perfect" score that would indicate strong compliance with the dietary guidelines.

Finally, the researchers looked at the influence of retailer concentration.

Volpe and Okrent pointed to previous research showing that food prices are higher in markets that approach monopolies. They said this would suggest a negative relationship between concentration and healthful food purchases because retailers would have less incentive to promote healthful foods -- through attractive price points -- as the number of competitors decreases.

At the same time, they also pointed to other research showing that many markets that consist of only a few stores still offer favorably priced healthful foods, which suggests that there "may be reason to expect a positive relationship" between concentration and healthful food purchases.

Volpe and Okrent said they classified markets as concentrated or not concentrated based on an index that's used to determine the concentration potential of an industry or market.

They said they found fewer healthful food purchases in more-concentrated markets, but like with the difference in the socioeconomic demographics, the difference was very small. Accordingly, they concluded that their findings suggest that "retailer concentration alone does not have a strong effect on healthful food purchases."

Volpe and Okrent said their analysis indicates that consumer food purchasing behavior "falls far short of what would be considered a healthful diet" -- one that's "rich in fruits and vegetables, whole grains and low-fat dairy and meat products" and, as determined by the dietary guidelines, light on undesirable nutrients.

"Virtually without exception" across demographics and food categories, they said, "consumers allocate too little of their food budget to healthful options and too much to less-healthful options."

The complete analysis by Volpe and Okrent is available at

Volume:84 Issue:51

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