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Americans Getting More “Real” About their Diets

Posted by Christian Gregory, Diet, Safety, and Health Economics Branch, Economic Research Service in Food and Nutrition Research and Science
Feb 21, 2017

ERS research shows that people who rate their diet quality more favorably are more likely to share meals with the family. (Photo credit: Shutterstock)
ERS research shows that people who rate their diet quality more favorably are more likely to share meals with the family. (Photo credit: Shutterstock)

This post is part of the Science Tuesday feature series on the USDA blog. Check back each week as we showcase stories and news from the USDA’s rich science and research portfolio.

Nutrition advice is all around us—in grocery stores, magazines, public service announcements, and food labels.  We’re urged to cut back on fats, sodium, and added sugars, and eat more fiber, whole grains, and fruits and vegetables. But if we don’t think our diets need improving, we may turn a blind eye or deaf ear to dietary advice.  We may think all that advice is directed to someone else.

Until recently, many Americans held unrealistically rosy opinions of their diets, rating them higher in healthfulness than was actually the case.  For example, researchers at our agency, the Economic Research Service (ERS) found that 40 percent of the U.S. household meal planners surveyed in 1989-90 were overly optimistic about the nutritional quality of their diets.

Since that survey, many things have changed about American diets, but overall healthfulness, as measured against USDA Dietary Guidelines, hasn’t.  My colleagues and I wanted to know—if our diets haven’t improved much, are we at least more aware of our shortcomings?

The answer is yes.  Using responses from surveys in 1989-91 and 2005-08, we found that Americans have become more realistic about their diet quality.  The share of people who reported that their diets were “excellent” or “very good” declined from 41 to 31.9 percent between the surveys.  Declines were especially large among Hispanics and people who were underweight, overweight, or obese, younger than 65, or had some college education (but not a college degree).  We found that people who had diets high in fat were much less likely to give themselves a favorable rating in 2005-08 than in 1989-91.

We also found a strong relationship between how people rate their diets, and certain dietary choices and habits.  For example, those with better self-ratings are more likely to share meals with the family, both at home and away from home, and to keep skim milk and dark green vegetables in the fridge, freezer, or pantry.

A more realistic view of one’s diet could signal greater receptiveness to dietary guidance—an essential first step toward making dietary changes.  Check out more of the findings in our report, How Americans Rate Their Diet Quality:  An Increasingly Realistic Perspective.

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