If misery loves company, then Americans should feel a little better this week. For the past few decades the U.S. has experienced some humiliation as the rest of the world snickered at its bulging waist lines and gasped at the multitude of studies outlining its citizens bad eating habits.
But a new and very comprehensive global study has found that since 1990 the rest of the world’s diet has not been much better. The research, which was jointly sponsored by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Britain’s Medical Research Council, showed that diets in the 187 countries studied showed an overall decline in the ratio of healthy foods to junk food.
The researchers relied on a wide range of studies (320 in all) and data sources, including nationally representative dietary surveys, local surveys, and information from the UN Food and Agriculture committee. They also adjusted for total energy intake to evaluate quality—as far as possible—independently from quantity, in order to better equate less developed and poorer countries with more affluent nations.
The markers in the study were ten agreed upon healthy foods (fruit, vegetables, beans and legumes, nuts and seeds, whole grains, milk, total polyunsaturated fatty acids, fish, plant omega-3s, and dietary fibre), and seven unhealthy foods to define a favorable or unfavorable dietary pattern (unprocessed red meats, processed meats, sugar-sweetened beverages, saturated fat, trans fat, dietary cholesterol, and sodium).
An interesting pattern emerged from the data in that there was an increase in most regions in the amount of healthy foods being eaten, but there was a more significant rise in the junk foods, especially in countries that are becoming more affluent, like China and India.
The best improvements in healthy eating were in Mongolia, Latin America and the Caribbean, but Armenia, Bosnia and the Dominican Republic have been more on a junk food binge. This was true for much of the former Soviet republics in central Asia and Eastern Europe. It came as little surprise that countries in the Mediterranean region, well known for its abundance of the foods that have proven to benefit health, had some of the highest scores for healthy eating. But what was surprising is that those that did have high scores were poorer countries in the region and France and Italy, both famous for popularizing and indulging in the Mediterranean diet, did not do so well.
The U.S. had little change in the 20-year span analyzed, as intake of both healthier foods and junk foods increased. And another report that just came out this week from the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, which convenes every five years, says that the American diet is having devastating effects, as two-thirds of American adults are overweight or obese. And about half of American adults, 117 million people, have preventable chronic diseases related to poor diet and physical inactivity, the group said. The same report found that while Americans are eating the same amount of fruit as five years ago, vegetable consumption has decreased, especially for children and teenagers.
The Gates Foundation study also determined that on a global basis, older adults eat better than younger adults and that overall women eat better than men.
There is a big movement by the United Nations, NGO’s, foundations and governments all around the world to advance awareness and knowledge about healthier eating and access to more nutritious food. Fresh fruits and vegetables are always at the center of the solution. So keep eating your veggies and spread the word to others.