The Food Gap Is Widening

Wealthy people are eating better than ever, while the poor are eating worse.
Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty

Nutritional disparities between America’s rich and poor are growing, despite efforts to provide higher-quality food to people who most need it. So says a large study just released from the Harvard School of Public Health that examined eating habits of 29,124 Americans over the past decade. Diet quality has improved among people of high socioeconomic status but deteriorated among those at the other end of the spectrum. The gap between the two groups doubled between 2000 and 2010. That will be costly for everyone.

The primary conclusion of the study is interesting, though, in that its focus is diet quality among the population as a whole. Without accounting for socioeconomic status, there has been, the study reads, “steady improvement.” People aren’t eating more vegetables, or less red or processed meat, and their salt intake increased—which the researchers call “disconcerting”—but Americans are eating more good things like whole fruit, whole grains, nuts, legumes, and polyunsaturated fats.

Frank Hu, a professor of nutrition and epidemiology at Harvard and one of the study’s authors, led with the good news when we spoke by phone.

“The good news is that the overall quality of the U.S. diet has been increasing in the past decade,” he said. Hu likened the study to a nutrition report card, saying that “the grade is not that great, kind of in the B- range.” (“Not that great” might be more like a C- or D+ by non-Harvard-professor standards.)

The scale used, the Alternate Healthy Eating Index 2010, is the sum of 11 components, and it has been show to predict chronic disease, markers of inflammation, and death. Optimal diet quality on the index is 110, and right now we're below 50.

Hu later called the growing gap between the rich and poor “disturbing.” That gulf is really the critical takeaway of this study. There can be no tenable “overall improvement” when there is growing disparity around a point so critical to preventive medicine, or when there is deterioration among any such sizable marginalized population.

Walter Willett, chair of the department of nutrition at Harvard School of Public Health, said in a press statement that the widening gap is related to income and education and “presents a serious challenge to our society as a whole.” Hu also drew a parallel between diet quality and income trends, noting, “After the financial crisis, the top one percent is doing very well—actually doing better, but the people in the low socioeconomic status groups are doing worse."

Access to high-quality food is also important from a public health point of view because in low socioeconomic status groups, the burden of diet-related diseases is disproportionately high. “With deterioration in diet quality over time,” Hu said, “this may actually even increase disparities in obesity and other diet-related conditions.”

The research paper is not wanting for a politicized call to action. The authors write: “Collective actions, such as legislation and taxation, that aim toward creating an environment that fosters and supports individuals' healthful choices are more effective at reducing dietary [disease] risk factors than actions that solely depend on personal responsibility.”

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James Hamblin, MD, is a senior editor at The Atlantic. He writes the health column for the monthly magazine and hosts the video series If Our Bodies Could Talk.

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