Science

Why do we eat as badly today as we did 30 years ago?

26% of preventable diseases in the world are related to poor diet. Even if access to healthy food is now much easier than it used to be, we eat no better today than we did thirty years ago, 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 the extent to which our way of eating has stalled, researchers at the Friedman School of Nutrition and Policy at Tufts University in Boston 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. 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. On a continental scale, the highest-scoring region of the world is South Asia with a score of 45.7 out of 100, while Latin America and the Caribbean scores 30.3, the highest of any.

Victoria Miller, researcher at the Friedman School of Nutrition and Policy at Tufts University and first author of the paper, transcribes this study for Sciences et Avenir.

Sciences et Avenir: Can you explain why this is the most comprehensive study ever done in the world?

Victoria Miller: Our research includes more than 1,100 nutrition surveys conducted around the world, with a total of 7.46 billion people. This has allowed us to obtain the most up-to-date and comprehensive assessments of the quality of adult nutrition on a global, regional and national scale. In addition, our study assessed children’s nutritional quality for the first time and combined socioeconomic characteristics such as educational attainment and urban residence.

What do we eat in South Asia, the region of the world with the best nutrition? And why is Latin America last in the rankings?

Diet quality was highest in South Asia, mainly due to low consumption of sugary drinks, red meat, processed meats, and high consumption of whole grains. By contrast, people in Latin America and the Caribbean consume more sugar-sweetened beverages, red and processed meats, and sodium. Their intake of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and polyunsaturated fats—in short, healthy foods—is relatively low.

Your research shows that in some countries there is more access to healthy food today than it was thirty years ago, such as the United States. However, it is still one of the worst eating countries in the world. On the other hand, Vietnam has more opportunities and became the country with the highest score. How to explain these differences?

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