The American diet is notoriously poor. Internet memes depict it as piles of bacon coated in cheese and more bacon. In reality, however, it’s slowly getting better.

In studies published Monday in the journal Health Affairs, researchers at Harvard say the average American’s diet is improving and, in turn, reducing disease and premature death.

Still the improvements are small, and certain groups are still suffering from poor diet more than others.

Beth Warren, a registered dietician who wasn’t involved in the studies, says the fact that reports are coming out showing any improvement in the overall diet of Americans is a positive sign.

“Recent reports are pointing toward the shift of consumers focusing on higher quality foods in the overall diet,” she told Healthline. “These foods are typically less processed, providing more of the whole food benefits. However, we should be cautious of the findings since they are modest and still reflect fewer changes in the most at-risk populations such as African Americans.”

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Small Dietary Changes Can Improve Health

The Harvard researchers examined the diets of 33,885 American adults and found healthier eating habits cumulatively prevented 1.1 million premature deaths over 14 years.

Diet improvements from 1999 and 2012 resulted in 12 percent fewer cases of type 2 diabetes, 8 percent fewer cases of cardiovascular disease, and 1.3 percent fewer cases of cancer.

These reductions in disease were achieved despite only small improvements in the average diet, researchers noted. While examining the quality of study participants’ diets on a scale of 0-110, with 110 being the healthiest, none of the participants reached 50.

The improvements that were seen across the board, such as significant reductions in consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages and trans fats, were driven primarily by changes in regulations rather than health consciousness. Other key dietary markers saw little or no improvements.

African Americans had the poorest overall diet, which researchers say is in part due to shortfalls in education and income.

“Our findings provide further justification for promoting healthful diets as a national priority for chronic disease prevention as well as for legislative and regulatory actions to improve the food supply more broadly,” lead study author Dong Wang, a doctoral candidate, said in a press release.

Bryan Hardy, a certified nutritional practitioner and holistic nutritionist, said the decline in revenue for McDonald’s, the increased demand for organic foods, and the growing trend of farmers markets across the country are indicative of overall improvements.

“The problem is that clean, healthy food still isn't nearly as convenient as the junk that's available on every street corner,” he told Healthline. “We need to encourage more gardens at home and public spaces so that people can have access to free or very affordable fresh, organically grown produce as a foundation.”

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Cost-Effective Ways to Reduce Childhood Obesity

Childhood obesity has quadrupled in adolescents over the past 30 years, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Saying that “the United States will not be able to treat its way out of the obesity epidemic,” Harvard researchers in another study searched for cost-effective ways of preventing this trend from getting worse.

They pinpointed three ways they said would reduce healthcare costs related to obesity:

  • an excise tax on sugar-sweetened beverages
  • elimination of the tax subsidy for advertising unhealthy food to children
  • nutrition standards for food and drinks sold in schools outside of school meals

“Our results highlight the importance of investing in prevention for policy makers aiming to reduce childhood obesity,” said lead study author Steven Gortmaker, Ph.D., professor of the practice of health sociology, in a press release. “Interventions early in the life course have the best chance of reducing long-term obesity prevalence and related mortality and healthcare costs.”

Dr. Scott Schreiber, a chiropractor and board certified clinical nutritionist, said school districts need to reprioritize and allocate more funding to the overall health of students.

“School lunches are a big concern when it comes to nutrition. Our children are getting served garbage in terms of nutritional value. The school district's concerns revolve around cost of food and not the quality of food,” he told Healthline.

“There are numerous studies that show that junk food, such as what is available in school lunches, decreases brain power and ability to learn. These are all ignored for cheap food.”

Schreiber recommends eating more fruits and vegetables, drinking filtered water instead of sugary beverages, buying organic food whenever possible, and avoiding processed foods. 

“A healthy diet starts at home. Having healthy food readily available will teach children what foods are healthy and what foods should be avoided,” he said.

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