Less than 25% of Americans have healthy diet, study shows Wealthier whites show greatest improvement


Although the American diet improved during the past three decades, fewer than 25 percent of people surveyed eat a healthful one, a new study has found.

The study, the first to compare national dietary trends over a long period among different economic groups of blacks and whites, also found that the diet of wealthier whites had improved most dramatically.

The research looked at four groups: wealthier whites and blacks, and poorer whites and blacks.

In 1965, wealthier whites scored lowest in the percentage eating a healthful diet, and poorer blacks scored highest, a discrepancy the researchers attributed to the difference in ability to afford substantial amounts of meat and other foods high in saturated fat.

By 1991, a higher percentage of Americans in general were eating health-promoting diets, having significantly reduced their consumption of saturated fats and cholesterol, and lowered their total fat intake to 35 percent of daily calories, from 40 percent.

But the degree of the improvement varied. The dramatic gain among wealthier whites, who had the farthest to go, was in contrast to smaller improvements made among poorer whites and blacks, who had been in nutritionally better shape to begin with.

The researchers also found that the diet of poorer blacks by 1991 was not so rich as it had been in 1965 in foods such as sweet potatoes, greens and black-eyed peas, part of a traditional diet that had dovetailed with the emphasis on beans, grains and vegetables in current dietary recommendations.

The study found dietary change in good and bad directions among all groups. While many Americans had switched from whole milk to low-fat or skim milk over the years, by 1991 they were also eating far more pizza, tacos and pasta dishes loaded with hidden fats.

Consumption of grains, fruits and vegetables -- aside from fat-laden french fries -- actually decreased among some groups. And the widely offered advice to eat more fiber seems to have fallen on deaf ears.

As a result of these trends, the differences in dietary quality between whites and blacks narrowed considerably after the mid-1960s, even though both groups were improving, the researchers concluded.

The new findings, by Dr. Barry M. Popkin and colleagues at the University of North Carolina, are being published today in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Pub Date: 9/05/96

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