In the supermarket, fruit and vegetable stands are full of local and exotic varieties. But we quickly left the shelves with mangoes, apples or bananas to look through the aisles dedicated to cookies or sweets. Even if the choices are much more varied today than they were thirty years ago, we eat no better today than we did in the past, according to the largest study ever published on the subject in the journal Nature food. Between 1990 and 2018, the eating habits of people in 185 countries were carefully studied. Regardless of the region of the world, none of them was able to radically improve their diet.
To understand why our way of eating has stalled, researchers at the Friedman School of Nutrition and Policy at Tufts University in Boston (USA) have developed a ranking by country. The scale ranges from 0 for a diet that is very low in nutrients, high in sugar and processed meats, to 100 for a diet that is rich in fruits, vegetables, nuts, and whole grains. On average, most countries score around 40.3 points. Minimum improvement of 1.5 points since 1990. While consumption of nuts, legumes, and vegetables has increased over time, these improvements have been completely offset by the growing presence of red and processed meats, sugary drinks such as soft drinks, and the addition of sodium to food.
Vietnam, Iran and Indonesia lead the way
This study provides for the first time such a comprehensive panorama of the situation around the world and shows certain variations by country. For thirty years, the United States, Vietnam, China and Iran are among the countries where the possibilities of healthy eating have clearly increased. On the other hand, access to balanced food has worsened in Tanzania, Nigeria, and also in Japan. Some countries are doing well, with scores above 50. These are Vietnam, Iran, Indonesia and India. But that’s less than 1% of the world’s population. At the bottom of the rankings are Brazil, Mexico, the US and Egypt. France is one of the countries with a score of 40 to 43 in the world average. At the continental level, the region of the world with the highest score is South Asia with a score of 45.7 out of 100, while Latin America and the Caribbean has a score of 30.3, the highest of any.
26% of preventable diseases in the world are related to poor diet. But to implement a stimulating public health policy, you must first understand who to target based on age, gender, or location. The Nature food article reviewed 1,100 studies from over 185 countries. Their results show that among adults, women are more likely to adhere to recommended diets than men. Similarly, older people were more likely to adapt their diet than younger people. In addition, socioeconomic factors play an important role in the adoption of these reflexes. Adults and “educated” children generally ate better. The authors of the study emphasize the role of eating habits in early childhood: the younger the children, the easier it is to instill good habits in them. As children age, these good habits tend to wane.
Balance your plate
Regardless of the country in the world, the equation for better nutrition lies in one obvious sentence: include more healthy food on your plate and cut down on unhealthy food. “This suggests that policies that encourage healthy eating, such as government programs, agricultural policies, and medical guidelines, can have a significant impact on the quality of nutrition not only in the United States, but around the world,” said Dariusz Mozzafarian, professor of nutrition at Tufts University and study co-author.
This study is so detailed that it could form the basis for a new policy to encourage a healthy diet that includes more grains, seafood and vegetable oils. This is the first analysis of the eating behavior of adults and children on a global scale. The next step for researchers is to try to observe how malnutrition can directly cause disease worldwide. The idea is also to show how different health strategies and food programs can have a positive impact on a global, regional and national scale.