Diets are not much healthier today than they were 30 years ago across the globe, according to new research. Scientists say their findings can help governments better understand how eating habits are changing, in turn helping them set targets and invest in policies that encourage people to consume healthier food.
Researchers from Tufts University ranked different diets on a scale of 0 to 100, with 0 being a diet consisting only of junk food, and 100 representing a perfect, healthy diet. The average score in 2018 was 40.3, which is a modest 1.5 gain compared with 1990.
Healthy options became more popular in the U.S., China, Vietnam and Iran over that time while people’s diets became less healthy in Tanzania, Nigeria and Japan. Overall, people in the Americas and Caribbean were eating the unhealthiest diets while people in South Asia were following the healthiest ones. The U.S., Brazil, Mexico and Egypt were the unhealthiest while India, Vietnam, Iran and Indonesia had some of the best eating habits.
Only one percent of the world’s population live in just 10 countries which scored above 50.
Following a healthy diet should start in childhood
The study shows that people are eating more vegetables and nuts than they used to, but are also consuming more red meat, sugary drinks and salt. Women were more likely to follow healthy diets than men, and older people ate better than younger people. Adults with higher education and kids with well-educated parents were also found to have healthier diets than their more disadvantaged peers.
Young children had some of the best diets — which worsened as they aged, the team reports. They say this suggests early childhood is the best time to engrain healthy habits in kids that they will retain for life.
For the study, the team looked at diet data from more than 1,100 surveys from the Global Dietary Database carried out in 185 countries.
“We found that both too few healthy foods and too many unhealthy foods were contributing to global challenges in achieving recommended dietary quality,” says senior author Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian, a professor of nutrition at Tufts, in a statement. “This suggests that policies that incentivize and reward more healthy foods, such as in healthcare, employer wellness programs, government nutrition programs, and agricultural policies, may have a substantial impact on improving nutrition in the United States and around the world.”
Bad diet is the world’s leading cause of illness, responsible for just over a quarter (26 percent) of early deaths. Little is known about how people’s diets vary by age, sex, education, or proximity to urban areas.
The team now want to look at how different aspects of bad diets contribute to the onset of diseases around the world. They also want to model the effects of different policies aimed at improving diets both in the US and globally.
The findings are published in the journal Nature Food.
Report by South West News Service writer Gwyn Wright.