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American Diets Are a Little Better Now

Over the last decade and a half, American diets have improved, but the changes are modest. More of us should be eating whole grains and protein from plants.
American Diets Are a Little Better Now
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Public health experts have long been concerned that common American diets are contributing to obesity and chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and cancer. As a result, they do their best to offer guidelines on what diets to follow. How are we doing?

Are American Diets Improving?

Despite lots of information about how to eat healthfully, Americans are still getting too much of their energy from low-quality carbohydrates. Nutrition scientists drew this conclusion from analyzing Nutrition Health and Examination Survey (NHANES) data from 1999 to 2016 (JAMA, Sept. 24, 2019).

Although American diets got a little better over that time frame, the change was quite modest. On the positive side, people consumed fewer calories from added sugar and from fruit juice. Liquid calories raise blood sugar quickly, but people may still be hungry after drinking soda or juice. Since added sugar has been a weakness of American diets for some time, reducing it is good news.

Other news is not as good. For one thing, Americans are still getting about 14 percent of their calories from added sugars. For another, only 9 percent of calories in a typical American diet come from whole fruits and whole grains. About 42 percent comes from highly refined grains, added sugar and starchy vegetables such as potatoes.

The scientists note that people may be eating fewer refined carbohydrates in response to changes in dietary guidelines away from low-fat diets and towards healthy fats and plant sources of protein. Popular diet trends such as the Paleo, Atkins, vegan and vegetarian diets may also be shaping American diets now. However, by far the most widely consumed sources of protein are red meat and processed meat. Relatively few people rely on seafood or plant sources such as whole grains, nuts, and legumes for their protein. In addition, poorer people are not eating better than they have in the past. Sadly, low-quality carbohydrates are cheap calories.

How Is the Healthy Eating Index?

The estimated Healthy Eating Index went from 55.7 to 57.7. Although this change is statistically significant, it leaves plenty of room for improvement.

Learn More:

If you would like recipes and guidance on healthful meals, you may want to consider our book, Recipes & Remedies From The People’s Pharmacy. Many of the distinguished nutrition scientists we have interviewed over the years contributed some of their favorite recipes for healthy eating.

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About the Author
Terry Graedon, PhD, is a medical anthropologist and co-host of The People’s Pharmacy radio show, co-author of The People’s Pharmacy syndicated newspaper columns and numerous books, and co-founder of The People’s Pharmacy website. Terry taught in the Duke University School of Nursing and was an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology. She is a Fellow of the Society of Applied Anthropology. Terry is one of the country's leading authorities on the science behind folk remedies. .
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Favorite recipes from the experts & easy instructions for treating common conditions. Healthful, delicious recipes and practical remedies for blood sugar, cholesterol, blood pressure & indigestion.

Recipes & Remedies From The People’s Pharmacy
Citations
  • Shan Z et al, "Trends in dietary carbohydrate, protein, and fat intake and diet quality among US adults, 1999-2016." JAMA, Sept. 24, 2019. doi:10.1001/jama.2019.13771
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