American eating habits can be categorized into five distinct patterns strongly correlated with factors like age, race, gender, and region, according to researchers who presented their findings at an American Heart Association (AHA) meeting in San Diego on Tuesday.
The researchers used a 110-item food frequency questionnaire to analyze the dietary patterns of more than 21,000 black and white adults aged 45 and older.
One of the strongest associations they found was that blacks were more likely than whites to eat a “southern” diet, characterized by fried and processed meats, and sugar-sweetened drinks. Other groups found to be more likely to eat this kind of diet included men, those who lived in the southeastern United States, and those with lower incomes and less education.
The other patterns were identified as “traditional”, which featured Chinese and Mexican foods, pasta dishes, pizza, soup and other mixed dishes including frozen or take-out meals; a “healthy” pattern was defined as a diet mostly based on grains, fruit and vegetables; “sweets” featured large amounts of sweet snacks and desserts; and “alcohol” included proteins, alcohol, and salads.
“We believe focusing research on dietary patterns better represents how people eat, compared to single foods or nutrients,” said Suzanne Judd, study author and assistant professor of biostatistics at the University of Alabama-Birmingham.
Many health experts have argued for stronger focus on dietary patterns as opposed to individual nutrients in dietary recommendations, particularly as industry has conformed to nutrient-based guidelines. This may mean fortifying highly refined products to characterize them as nutritious, or using ingredients like fat replacers, for instance, which do not add nutritional value to products, but make them appear healthier.
The most recent Dietary Guidelines for Americans include a section on the importance of “total diet”.
This latest research also found that blacks were less likely to consume the “alcohol” dietary pattern. People aged 45 to 54 tended to eat a “traditional” dietary pattern, and those aged 75 and older were likely to not eat according to the “traditional” pattern.
“We hope that understanding these patterns will be informative in understanding the role of diet in health and disease disparities,” Judd said.
The data and conclusions are preliminary, and have yet to be published in a peer-reviewed journal.