Recommendations for eating healthy include eating more fruits, vegetables and whole grains, and cutting back on calories, sugar and fat. But what would happen to our food supply if everyone tried to eat this way?
Recently, researchers at the National Cancer Institute (NCI) attempted to answer that question. They examined whether the U.S. food supply is balanced enough to provide the amounts of foods and nutrients recommended by the dietary guidelines that have been updated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services every five years since 1980.
The NCI study, published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, reveals that the U.S. food supply contains too much sodium, unhealthy fat and added sugar, and not enough fruits, vegetables and whole grains for a balanced diet.
The researchers used a tool called the Healthy Eating Index (HEI) to measure the quality of the U.S. food supply. The HEI was developed by scientists at NCI and the USDA, and allows the researchers to score food based on two important aspects of diet quality: adequacy and moderation. According to the study, the overall HEI of the food supply in 1970 was 48 points, and has only increased to 55 points as of 2010, out of a possible 100 points. Basically, that means our food supply gets a failing grade.
So where does the food supply fall short? The researchers found that the U.S. food supply does not have enough fruits, veggies, whole grains or dairy. There are too many calories and unhealthy fats, as well as too much sodium, added sugar and alcohol. Overall, the country’s food supply does not currently provide the right kinds of foods for all individuals to have a healthy diet consistent with dietary recommendations.
“Our research shows that the healthfulness of the food supply has changed very little in the past 40 years. While the food supply does meet dietary recommendations in some areas, overall it provides too many empty calories and too few fruits, vegetables and whole grains,” says Susan M. Krebs-Smith, study co-author and chief of the Risk Factor Monitoring and Methods Branch at NCI and member of the National Collaborative on Childhood Obesity Research (NCCOR).
The study’s findings show that in order to achieve a healthy balance, the fruit supply would need to more than double and the supply of vegetables would need to increase by almost 50 percent. There would need to be a 40 percent decrease in unhealthy fats and sugar, and more than a 50 percent decrease in sodium to support dietary guidelines for everyone in the population.
One of NCCOR’s goals is to help promote healthy food choices, which is an important part of the effort to reduce childhood obesity in America. NCCOR has created a video and a series of infographics that help visualize the importance this research.
NCCOR member and study co-author Jill Reedy adds, “As the federal government prepares to update the Dietary Guidelines for Americans in 2015, a process they undertake every five years, the HEI scorecard and this suite of materials can inform its work, particularly when considering the national food environment and sustainability.”