Most Americans say they eat healthy — or at least that they want to make healthy food choices. But the average score on the Healthy Eating Index is 58 out of 100 — a failing grade. No age, sex, racial/ethnic, or income group has an average score greater than 65 out of 100. The only conclusion is that most of us are not eating a healthy diet, even though we want to do so.
A recent study looked at this question: do we know how healthy our diet is? Researchers asked 9,757 adults to rate their eating habits as excellent, very good, good, fair, or poor. Then they analyzed the same people’s eating habits.
72% of the respondents said their diets were good, very good, or excellent. Only 6% gave themselves a “poor” rating.
However, when the food they were actually eating was analyzed, 70% got a “poor.” Only 13% actually were eating a good, very good, or excellent diet.
75% of the people in the study overestimated the quality of the food they ate. The people most likely to be accurate in their assessment of their own food choices were those who said they had a poor diet.
What can we learn from this?
“In general, US adults cannot accurately assess the quality of their diet,” the researchers concluded, “with the exception of those assessing the healthfulness of their diet as poor.”
Since 70% of the people in the study had a poor diet, anyone who guessed that they deserved an F for their eating habits had a good chance of being right.
The trouble is, people who think they’re making good food choices aren’t likely to change their eating patterns. If we’re satisfied with our lunch of a turkey sandwich on white bread, a bag of chips, and a diet drink, we have no reason to try to improve that meal. Maybe breakfast is a granola bar with a soft drink and dinner is a burger with fries and a shake. This may seem like a balanced diet, but it’s not really made up of healthy choices.
Knowing what a healthy diet looks like can help us work toward healthy eating.
What’s a healthy diet?
Just about 10% of us eat enough fruits and vegetables. When we do eat vegetables, they often show up in the form of French fries and pizza sauce. Working on increasing the servings of produce we get is enough to make a difference in the healthiness of our meals.
Every time you plate up a meal for yourself, make sure that half your plate contains non-starchy vegetables. This one change will increase your intake of fiber, vitamins, and minerals.
Since those veggies take up room that was previously filled by foods that are less nutrient-dense, you probably will also eat less highly processed food. That means you’ll take in less sugar, fewer refined carbohydrates, and probably less unhealthy fat as well.
It’s a good idea to learn about healthy eating and to work gradually toward eating a healthier diet. Make a start with one simple change, and add more changes as you get used to your new, healthier habits:
- Choose whole grains.
- Cut back on sugar.
- Avoid highly processed food.
- Eat a variety of foods.
- Choose nutrient-dense snacks.
Not sure whether your diet is healthy or not? Ask your doctor.