Women walk on Michigan Avenue in Chicago, Ill. in 2006.
Women walk on Michigan Avenue in Chicago, Ill. in 2006. (Jeff Haynes, AFP/Getty Images)

CHICAGO — Americans' eating habits have improved — except among the poor, evidence of a widening wealth gap when it comes to diet. Yet even among wealthier adults, food choices remain far from ideal, a 12-year study found.

On an index of healthy eating where a perfect score is 110, U.S. adults averaged just 40 points in 1999-2000, climbing steadily to 47 points in 2009-10, the study found.

Scores for low-income adults were lower than the average and barely budged during the years studied. They averaged almost four points lower than those for high-income adults at the beginning; the difference increased to more than six points in 2009-10.

Higher scores mean greater intake of heart-healthy foods including vegetables, fruits, whole grains and healthy fats, and a high score means a low risk of obesity and chronic illnesses including heart disease, strokes and diabetes. Low scores mean people face greater chances for developing those ailments.

The widening rich-poor diet gap is disconcerting and "will have important public health implications," said study co-author Dr. Frank Hu of the Harvard School of Public Health. Diet-linked chronic diseases like diabetes have become more common in Americans in general, and especially in the poor, he noted.

"Declining diet quality over time may actually widen the gap between the poor and the rich," Hu said.


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Harvard School of Public Health researchers developed the healthy diet index used for the study. It is similar to federal guidelines but has additional categories including red and processed meats, sugar-sweetened beverages and alcohol.

The study authors used that index along with government estimates on trans fat intake to evaluate information in 1999-2010 national health surveys that included interviews with people about their eating habits. The results are published Monday in JAMA Internal Medicine.

Hu said the widening diet gap reflects an income gap that deepened during the recent financial crisis, which likely made healthy food less affordable for many people. Hu also noted that inexpensive, highly processed foods are often widely available in low-income neighborhoods.

The overall diet improvement was largely the result of decreased intake of foods containing trans fats, but the disappointing results point to a need for policy changes including better nutrition education, Hu said.

The study authors say their results are consistent with an earlier report showing that "nearly the entire U.S. population fell short of meeting federal dietary recommendations."

The federal guidelines are updated every five years; new ones will be issued next year. The recommendations emphasize limiting intake of trans fats, sodium, processed foods and added sugars.

78.6 million

U.S. adults who are considered obese, or 35.7 percent

12.7 million

U.S. children, ages 2-19, who are considered obese, or 17 percent

$147 billion

Estimated annual medical cost of obesity in the U.S. in 2008

Source: U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

78.6 million

The number of U.S. adults who are considered obese, or 35.7 %

12.7 million

The number of U.S. children, ages 2-19 are considered obese, or 17%

$147 billion

The number of U.S. children, ages 2-19 are considered obese, or 17%

Source: U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention


Study: Action-packed TV may induce snacking

Could action-packed TV fare make you fat? That's the implication of a new study that found people snacked more watching fast-paced television than viewing a more leisurely paced talk show.

Cornell University researchers randomly assigned almost 100 undergraduates to watch one of three 20-minute sessions featuring: "The Island," a 2005 sci-fi thriller starring Scarlett Johansson and Ewan McGregor; that same movie but without the sound; or the "Charlie Rose" show, a public television interview program. The students were all provided generous amounts of cookies, M&M candies, carrots and grapes.

During "The Island," students ate on average about 7 ounces of various snack foods, and 354 calories. That was almost 140 calories more and nearly double the ounces they ate watching Charlie Rose. Watching the movie without sound, they also ate more — almost 100 calories more — compared with Charlie Rose.

The faster-paced TV seemed to distract viewers more, contributing to mindlessness eating, said Cornell researcher Aner Tal, the study's lead author. The Associated Press