The Growing Disparity in Dietary Habits


The struggles seem not to change. Is it always along economic lines?  A recent scientific publication has brought to light the growing inequality between us and our nutritional consumption habits.

Growing evidence from studies has linked economic disparity to a spectrum of financial, social, health, and psychological aspects of life. Such as owning a home, a car, access to quality services such as education, job opportunities, and health care services.  Being poor does not only affect material goods and services, it also affects happiness, tolerance, hope, stress, life satisfaction, all of which can lead to negative outcomes such as poor health, unemployment, homelessness, substance addiction, and incarceration.  Now data suggests it’s effecting what we are choosing to eat.

This article by Dariush Mozaffarian, MD, DrPH et al. Dietary Intake Among US Adults, 1999-2012. JAMA, June 2016 DOI: 10.1001/jama.2016.7491 discusses a wide and growing “diet gap” has opened between the middle-class and the wealthy.  Although the study suggests that overall Americans are having a better diet, there is an increasing “disparity based on race/ethnicity, education, and income level”

The healthiness of people’s diet was studied by researchers based on American Heart Association scoring system where a proportion of items in an “ideal” diet such as fruits, vegetables, nuts, whole grains, and fish, rated higher versus a “poor” diet which had a certain proportion of items such as sugar, salt, processed meat, and saturated fat.

Dr. Mozaffarian, the lead author of the study indicates “The overall diet is still far from optimal – less than one-third of American adults meet guideline targets for most foods. Intakes of total fruits or vegetables did not increase and intakes of processed meats and sodium were largely unchanged” and that “almost twice as many people at low incomes have poor diets compared to people at the highest income level”.

The study discusses some of the factors that have contributed to the rise of the alarming dietary gap which range from the cost of healthy food, the time to prepare healthy food, or the knowledge or know how, to the availability, access to, convenience factors and marketing for healthy meals.  All these areas have to be targeted to bring the arduous change to the dietary habit inequalities.

Margo A. Denke, M.D., comments on the findings of this study in an accompanying editorial Changing Dietary Habits and Improving the Healthiness of Diets in the United States “Achieving dietary changes remains a challenging task. The advice of clinicians may not provide lasting effects unless patients can incorporate meaningful dietary changes into a daily sustainable pattern. How to best accomplish this task is the goal. Even though there has been some improvement from 1999 to 2012, clinicians, patients, and the food industry all need to work together to meet the challenge of improving the healthiness of the U.S. diet.”

Like in the current election year rhetoric, as Americans we are divided not only on political, economic inequalities but also on our dietary habits. I shudder to think if the economic conditions stagnate for the poor and the middle class continuing to disappear will lead to more people on the wrong side of the wealth gap and more with a poor diet and diet-related diseases.

It is not a simple task for family, friends or even your health care professionals to get people to eat right and motivate them. Let’s find solutions, ways to improve the diet for the underpriveleged by all working together. The haves and have-nots, the story is as old as any story. I wonder if the story will change. I am just a novice and I ask the questions to seek the answers – hoping these metics change.

Photo Credit:  20111019-FNS-RBN-1744 by U.S. Department of Agriculture CC by 2.0 References


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