America Is Winning on Trans Fat, Losing on Sodium

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Photo: Corbis

Americans: We sure don’t eat well. From deep-fried tacos to deep-fried cookie dough, perhaps no society in human history has come up with so many innovative, delicious ways to cram astronomical numbers of calories into its citizens’ face-holes. But a new study in JAMA Internal Medicine suggests that it isn’t all bad news — over the last decade or so, the American diet has in fact improved. It’s only a “modest” improvement, though, and overall, our eating habits are, unfortunately, about what you would expect.

The researchers looked at data from 29,124 adults between 20 and 85 years of age using a scale to compare key indicators of healthy eating between 1999 and 2010.

Some of the key findings:

Mexican-Americans had the healthiest eating habits of the groups observed. The study didn’t involve a comprehensive racial/ethnic breakdown — rather, the only four categories were “non-Hispanic white,” “non-Hispanic black,” “Mexican American,” and “other.” But among those groups, the only statistically significant difference the researchers observed once socioeconomic factors were controlled for was that Mexican-Americans ate better than everyone else, which, the researchers write, “may be due to dietary traditions and culture.” (Apparently, Mexican-Americans do not have the same eating habits as Mexicans, though the researchers don’t offer any explanation or speculation on this.) White and black people had basically equally (un)healthy eating habits with the controls in place.

Public-health experts have done a pretty good job getting people to eat less trans fat. A full half of the increase in healthy eating the researchers observed can be attributed to the fact that people are consuming a lot less trans fat, which is terrible for you (and which you might be eating without knowing it). “Public policy change has played a central role in the large reduction in trans fat intake,” the researcher wrote, citing recent public-health campaigns as well as various state- and city-level trans-fat bans (New York City has its own such ban, of course, which at least one study deemed to have been a success so far).

Americans gotta lay off the sodium. Trans fat appears to be on its way out, but Americans are consuming sodium like the horse in this weird YouTube video I just randomly Googled. “The gradually increasing sodium intake is disconcerting,” the researchers write, especially in light of the fact that nutritionists have been banging this drum for awhile. Apparently, people just aren’t listening and/or they find salt irresistibly delicious.

The positive trends don’t apply to socioeconomically disadvantaged people. Most groups and subgroups the researchers studied saw an overall improvement over the course of the decade in question, but there was no such trend among those with low socioeconomic statuses (which the researchers defined as having low income and educational attainment). Since high-SES individuals did see an increase, the nutritional disparity between high- and low-SES individuals doubled over the course of decade. (Along those same lines, people with a body mass index in the healthy range saw nutritional improvement over the decade, while those with unhealthy BMIs did not.)

It will be awhile before anyone is handing Americans trophies for their healthy eating. “Our findings are consistent with an earlier report that nearly the entire US population fell short of meeting federal dietary recommendations,” the authors write. No rose-colored glasses for these researchers — basically, this report is the equivalent of a usually failing student getting a C minus.