I keep looking for silver linings during the disastrous viral storm we’re now struggling through. Maybe, just maybe, the Covid-19 crisis that has kept people out of restaurants, limited supermarket ventures and prompted more home cooking will result in better eating habits.
As things now stand, Americans have a long way to go before they are fueling their bodies with the foods that can prevent chronic illness and promote healthful longevity.
Being a glass-half-full optimist, I should have been thrilled by the latest report that the diets of American children have improved significantly since the turn of the century.
But I was dismayed by the study’s finding that more than half the children ages 2 to 19 still have poor diets that fall well below current recommendations of what to eat to foster good health, now and in the future.
When data collection for the study began in 1999, 77 percent of American children, including most of those who could afford to eat better, had nutritionally poor diets. In the most recent survey completed 18 years later, the proportion of children with poor diets had declined to 56 percent.
The data came from nine successive National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys that included 31,420 youngsters. Diet quality was measured against three main recommendations: two current advisories from the American Heart Association and one based on the Healthy Eating Index 2015, which measures compliance with the government’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
“Things are getting better, but there’s still a long way to go,” Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian, one of the study’s authors, told me. “It’s frightening that children are still far from where they need to be. This finding is disappointing, but it’s not surprising considering that most of the foods available in grocery stores and restaurants do not meet nutritional guidelines.”
Dr. Mozaffarian, dean of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University, said, “The improvement over the last 20 years is not as big as we’d hoped it would be. In 20 or 30 years from now, we’ll be drowning in Type 2 diabetes. If current eating habits continue, one in two kids born now will develop it. We can’t wait another 20 years to fix this. There’s a freight train of chronic diseases coming down the tracks.”
The study, directed by Junxiu Liu, an epidemiologist at Tufts, revealed some small but encouraging improvements. American youth are now consuming more whole fruits, fewer fruit juices and more whole grains. Although they’re drinking less milk, yogurt and cheese consumption is up, as is poultry, and the amount of sugar-sweetened beverages and other sources of added sugar is now half what it was in 1999.
But there’s been little progress in curbing unwholesome consumption of processed meats, refined grains and salt and in increasing consumption of health-promoting vegetables, fish and shellfish and plant-based protein. The average daily intake of fruits and vegetables is now a mere 1.8 servings, not the four or five servings recommended, the study showed. Instead of three daily servings of whole grains, children are consuming less than one.
And while consumption of sugary drinks has dropped significantly, “added sugars from foods hasn’t gone down,” Dr. Mozaffarian said. “There’s still a lot of added sugars in breakfast cereals, cookies, cakes and candy in children’s diets.”
Given how bad youthful nutrition was before Covid-19, I fear that the pandemic could further undermine it, especially for children from low-income families, who may be missing meals at schools that are closed or whose parents are now not getting paid at all. Unfortunately, the least nourishing foods available to Americans are also most often the cheapest.
Still, I join Dr. Mozaffarian and other nutrition experts in hoping that during the near-isolation forced on so many of us, American families will have discovered — or rediscovered — their kitchens, are involving the children in food preparation, and adults and children are sitting down together to eat the same foods.