The feds flunk the American diet

Americans are still flunking when it comes to eating a healthy diet, according to a federal government grade card.

The Health Eating Index gauges consumption of several nutritional categories such as whole fruits, brightly colored vegetables, meat and added sugar. The aggregate national score was about 60 out of 100.

Americans are eating more from all of the major food groups – even fruits and vegetables – at the same time that the obesity rate has doubled since 1970. However, many are not meeting dietary recommendations. To do so, they would have to cut back significantly on added fats, refined grains and added sweeteners while increasing consumption of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and low-fat dairy products.

The typical Western diet – fried foods, salty snacks and generous portions of fat-laden meat – accounts for nearly a third of the heart-disease risk worldwide, according to a study of dietary patterns in 52 nations.

What constitutes an ideal diet continues to be elusive. Diets rich in lean meat, poultry and beans keep weight off best, according to a November 2010 New England Journal of Medicine study.

An analysis of 21 studies involving 350,000 people found “no significant evidence” that long-maligned saturated fat increases heart risk. But refined carbohydrates – white bread, white pasta and processed baked goods – do.

Another study compared the effectiveness of low-fat vs. low-carbohydrate diets. The verdict: Either works. Both groups lost about 7 percent of their body weight. A 2009 study was even more detailed, creating four groups with diets of varying amounts of fats and carbohydrates. For example, one diet consisted of 40 percent fat and 35 percent carbohydrates. Another had 20 percent fat and 65 percent carbohydrates. The same result: They also lost equal amounts of weight.

The safest way of eating for nutrition and weight control is what is known as the Mediterranean diet. It is more of a dietary pattern than a specific list of foods. Its key elements: fruits and vegetables, whole grains, nuts, olive oil and beans; moderate amounts of red wine, low-fat dairy, poultry and fish, and not much meat or added unhealthy fats. Experts say the diet contains thousands of vitamins, minerals and micronutrients that guard against heart disease and cancer, protect mental health and lengthen life. The diet even has the ability to change the genes that influence heart disease.