Diet disconnect? US adults overestimate quality of their diet, research says

By Mary Ellen Shoup

- Last updated on GMT

Photo Credit: GettyImages / AsiaVision
Photo Credit: GettyImages / AsiaVision

Related tags diet Weight loss Nutrition

US adults struggle and often overestimate the quality of their diet, according to recent research from the USDA's Agricultural Research Service.

Researchers set out to find if asking one single, question -- "How healthy is your diet?" -- ​could be used as a screening tool for nutrition studies to either replace or complement detailed dietary questionnaires commonly used in nutrition research. 

“We found that only a small percentage of US adults can accurately assess the healthfulness of their diet, and interestingly, it’s mostly those who perceive their diet as poor who are able to accurately assess their diet,”​ said the study’s lead author Jessica Thomson, PhD, research epidemiologist with the US Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service in the Southeast Area.

“Additionally, most adults overrate the quality of their diet, sometimes to a substantial degree.”

Research methods and findings

Researchers used data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, a nationally representative survey of US adults conducted every two years in which participants were asked to complete detailed 24-hour dietary recall questionnaires and rate their diet as excellent, very good, good, fair or poor.

Researchers used the food recall questionnaires to score each participant’s diet quality. They ranked certain foods as 'healthy' including fruits and vegetables, whole grains, healthy fats, lower-fat dairy products, seafood and plant proteins. Examples of foods categorized as 'less healthy' included refined grains and foods high in sodium, added sugars or saturated fats.

The study revealed significant disconnects between the researcher-calculated scores and how participants ranked their own diet. Out of over 9,700 participants, about 8,000 (roughly 85%) inaccurately assessed their diet quality. Of those, almost all (99%) overrated the healthfulness of their diet.

Surprisingly, noted researchers, accuracy of diet quality was highest among those who related their diet as poor matching researcher's score assessment 97% of the time. 

The proportion of participants who accurately assessed their diet quality ranged from 1%-18% in the other four rating categories.

Further research needed

Thomson noted that further research would reveal what factors individuals consider when assessing the quality of their diet such as current dietary recommendations and where their food is purchased of how it is prepared. 

“It’s difficult for us to say whether US adults lack an accurate understanding of the components of a healthful versus unhealthful diet or whether adults perceive the healthfulness of their diet as they wish it to be—that is, higher in quality than it actually is,”​ said Thomson.

“Until we have a better understanding of what individuals consider when assessing the healthfulness of their diet, it will be difficult to determine what knowledge and skills are necessary to improve self-assessment or perception of one’s diet quality.”

Source: Current Developments in Nutrition

Can United States Adults Accurately Assess Their Diet Quality?

Authors: J. Thomson, et. al

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