Americans Are Eating Way Healthier—That Is, If They Have Money

A new study shows that only the diets of low-income people have gotten worse over the past decade.

(Photo: Christopher Stevenson/Getty Images)

Staff Writer Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at GOOD.

Americans get a bad rap for loving processed and fast food and having the obesity rates to show for it. But a new study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association reveals that overall, people are making healthier choices—unless they come from low-income backgrounds.

The study’s authors used the Harvard School of Public Health’s Alternate Healthy Eating Index to research the dietary patterns of nearly 30,000 adults in the United States from 1999 to 2010. The higher an individual’s score on the index, the more likely that person was to consume fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and other nutritious options. The lower the score, the more likely an individual was to be a consumer of foods laden with sugar, trans fats, and sodium.

In 1999–2000 American adults scored 40 out of 110 possible points on the index. By 2009–2010, however, that score had risen to 47 out of 110 possible points—still well below where it should be, but an increase nonetheless. However, the researchers found consistent discrepancies in the diet quality of folks with fewer financial resources.

"Socioeconomic status was associated strongly with dietary quality, and the gaps in dietary quality between higher and lower SES widened over time," the study’s authors wrote.

It’s a finding that makes sense given that food deserts and a proliferation of fast-food restaurants in low-income communities make access to healthy options tough. It’s also a reality that the price of healthier fruits and vegetables is often out of the reach of people who lack the financial resources to buy a pint of blueberries or a bunch of kale.

“Price is a major determinant of food choice, and healthful foods generally cost more than unhealthful foods in the United States," wrote the study’s authors. 

Study coauthor Dr. Frank Hu of the Harvard School of Public Health also told CBS News that this diet gap between the rich and lower-income folks “will have important public health implications.” Diet-related diseases such as diabetes have become more common in low-income communities, said Hu. The study's authors suggest that the government initiatives should address the diet gap. But with Congress continually itching to cut social service programs such as SNAP, that might not happen anytime soon.

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