How economics determine who eats healthy food in the U.S.


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The gap between the rich and the poor in the United States continues to widen, most recently as illustrated through a 12-year study of healthy eating by the Harvard School of Public Health.

The study, titled “Trends in Dietary Quality among Adults in the United States, 1999 through 2010,” states that healthy eating and habits improved slightly throughout the nation, with the exception of low-income people. In short, overall dietary quality remains poor, according to the study, which was published on Sept. 1 in the JAMA Internal Medicine peer-review journal.

The study includes the results of a national sample of 29,124 adults, ages 20 to 85, who took a National Health and Nutritional Examination Survey during that time period. It also is important because of the extreme economic changes and policy revisions related to nutrition and food processing that occurred in the United States during the time period.

The study scored dietary quality as follows: The healthy eating index, designed by Harvard School of Public Health researchers, has a perfect score of 110 possible points that include the sum of 11 factors, which include scoring foods by nutritional value. U.S. adults in 1999 to 2000 averaged a score of 40 points, while they averaged 47 points in 2009 to 2010, according to the study. Likewise, low-income adults in 1999 to 2000 scored an average of four points less than high-income people, while the former group scored an average of six points more than the latter in 2009 to 2010.

Lower scores mean there is less consumption of healthy foods, such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains and good fats, and more of the likelihood that those groups of people have a higher risk of obesity and chronic illnesses, such as diabetes, heart disease and stroke.

Unhealthy diets = higher healthcare costs for all

While overall scores improved, the negative increase for low-income people is nothing but bad news for everyone, according to the study’s authors. The consumption of healthy foods is a huge factor in preventative medicine, and further separation between the rich and the poor along these lines means an overall disturbing trend for the United States. In short, a widening of the gap between what the rich and the poor eat in the United States means worse health and greater overall healthcare costs.

Factors preventing the poor from accessing healthier foods include overall nutritional education, price and availability. Therefore, it’s important for low-income people to learn about nutrition and the health consequences of a poor diet, be able to afford healthier foods, and increase access to them by eliminating food deserts in economically disadvantaged areas.