Nov. 30, 2012 at 2:00 PM ET
In findings that may surprise few, a broad comparison of U.S. dietary standards and real Americans' eating habits found that people fall short of nutritional recommendations overall - and some groups are worse than others.
Researchers, whose results appeared in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, said that children and the elderly seemed to eat a healthier diet than younger and middle-aged adults, and women had a better diet than men. Hispanics also tended to have better diets than either blacks or whites.
"Regardless of socioeconomic status, age, race and education, the American diet as a whole needs to be improved," said lead author Hazel Hiza, at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)'s Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion (CNPP) in Alexandria, Virginia.
For the study, researchers used responses to a large national health survey to compare what 8,272 Americans said they ate in the course of one day to what the USDA suggests they should be eating.
Each subset of people was assigned a score between zero and 100 based on the percentage of the USDA recommendation for different food groups, such as fruit, vegetables, grains, milk, meat and beans, they consumed each day.
Overall, the researchers found that children and adults as groups each scored 56, while seniors scored higher with 65, meaning they did a better job. Nobody came close to a perfect score of 100.
Hiza and her colleagues did find further differences when they looked at race and income.
Hispanics scored better than African Americans and whites across many different food groups, with Hispanic children getting closer to the recommended amounts of fruit and vegetables compared to white children, and closer to the recommended amounts of fruit compared to black children.
For kids, the family income also made a difference, but not with the result some might expect.
The researchers said that children from poor families were meeting more of the USDA recommendations than wealthy children in several food groups, which is possibly due to the low-income families' participation in the National School Breakfast and Lunch Programs.
Adults, though, did seem to meet more of the USDA recommendations as their incomes increased.
"What we know very clearly is that kids, who are in those lowest poverty groups, are doing OK, but not their parents," said Gary Bennett, who studies obesity prevention at Duke University and wasn't a part of the study.
"This is a win for some of our policies, but it is also the case that some of these parents are sacrificing their diets for the benefit of their kids."
Overall, Bennett said that Americans would benefit from policies that encouraged people to eat more fruit and vegetables.
"Most policy decisions have advanced the production, processing and consumption of inexpensive grains... If we can figure out policy that could do the same for fruit and vegetables, our health would benefit," he said.