The rich get richer and the poor get poorer describes more than bank accounts; it describes eating habits. The poverty gap is widening in many ways, including the food eaten by rich and poor Americans. Wealthy people eat better than ever before, whereas the poor are eating far worse, despite efforts to provide higher-quality food to people who most need it.
Nutritional economic disparities are growing, according to a study just from the Harvard School of Public Health. The Harvard team looked at the eating habits of more than 29,000 Americans for the past 10 years. The quality of the diet consumed by those with a high socioeconomic status improved, but it deteriorated for those near the bottom. In fact, between 2000 and 2010, the gap between the two groups doubled.
While that sounds bad, the study, published Monday in JAMA Internal Medicine, did show improvement for everyone in some areas. No, people are not eating more vegetables, less red or processed meat, or less salt. However, Americans are eating more whole fruit, whole grains, legumes, nuts and polyunsaturated fats.
One study author, Frank Hu, a Harvard professor of nutrition and epidemiology, noted that overall, the American dies has improved, but is still not that great. The scale used, the Alternate Healthy Eating Index 2010, has been shown to predict chronic disease and death. Optimal diet quality is 110 on the index, and right now the U.S. is below 50, according to the researchers.
Walter Willett, nutrition department chair at Harvard’s School of Public Health, noted that the widening gap is related to income. In a comparison with the financial crisis, Willet pointed out that the top one percent is “actually doing better, but the people in the low socioeconomic status groups are doing worse.”
From a public health point of view, the issue is important because the incidence of diet-related diseases among the poor is disproportionately high. As Hu noted, the growing dietary disparities is likely to increase the widening gap between rich and poor in obesity and other food- and health-related issues.
The research paper included a politicized call to action. The authors called for legislation and taxation that will support healthful choices that reduce dietary [disease] risk factors, rather than relying on personal responsibility and education to encourage better nutrition.
The U.S. government had already tried to address the disparity with its Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which distributes a monthly average of $133 per person among 47 million Americans. That money can be spent on any foods, with no incentive to buy healthy foods.
Hu called on SNAP to incentivize people to purchase fruits, vegetables, and whole grains rather than soft drinks and highly processed junk food. He noted the dramatic recent changes in foods caused by the reduction in trans fat consumption. Hu noted that the policies, like the ones tied to the trans far transformation, have a big influence on diet quality.
The authors also suggest that governmental policies can play a greater role in addressing the widening food gap between rich and poor, noting policies regarding consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages (juice and soda). They noted that policies removing sugary drinks from vending machines in schools and reducing their accessibility in public places can influence consumption and make a difference overall.
By Dyanne Weiss