Study: America is eating healthier
September 5, 1996
Web posted at: 5:15 a.m. EDT
From Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen
ATLANTA (CNN) -- The income gap between rich and poor may be widening, but differences in their diets are disappearing.
A new review of U.S. eating habits over the past 30 years documents a shift away from high-fat foods for all Americans, but most dramatically for affluent whites.
The study, published in Wednesday's edition of the New England Journal of Medicine, found that stereotypes of poor people's eating habits are not in tune with reality.
In 1965, poor black Americans ate a much healthier diet than wealthy whites. Beans, grains and low-fat foods were prominent in their diets.
Differing cultural tastes may have played their part, but economics are the most likely source for the difference in diets. Those who can afford it, black or white, tend to indulge in less-healthy, more expensive foods like steak and butter.
The good news from the study, directed by the University of North Carolina's Dr. Barry M. Popkin, is that between 1965 and 1991 researchers saw a 5 percent drop in the overall fat intake of Americans.
Wealthier Americans have apparently heard the warnings about high-fat diets; they are shying away from lard-laden foods like bacon and moving towards vegetables and fruits.
Americans with lower incomes, blacks in particular, have been there all along. Stereotypes may place a bag of chips or fast food in a poor person's hands, but the study says lower-income groups ate a more balanced diet than most in the 1960s and have only improved their habits since.
Popkin said he puts high-obesity rates among poor people down to declines in physical activity rather than diet.
The study, financed in part by Kellogg Corp., was based on U.S. Department of Agriculture surveys of 32,000 people between 1965 and 1991. People's diets were rated on a scale from zero to 16. The lower the number, the better the food. A healthy diet was considered to be a score of four or less.
In 1965, 16 percent of poor blacks scored below four, as did 9 percent of poor whites and 5 percent of well-off whites. By 1991, 24 percent of poor blacks scored in this healthy category. So did 20 percent of poor whites and 20 percent of wealthy whites.
There's still room for improvement, though. An editorial in the journal by Dr. Shiriki Kumanyika of the University of Illinois at Chicago noted that despite America's improved eating habits, over 3/4 of all U.S. citizens still have less-than-ideal diets.
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