Americans are eating better — filling up on more heart-healthy whole grains, fruits and vegetables than they were a decade ago.
On an index of healthy eating in which 110 is a perfect score, U.S. adults averaged 40 points in 2000 but climbed to 47 points in 2010, according to a 12-year Harvard study.
For low-income, adults, however, the score has barely budged. They averaged almost four points lower than high-income adults, putting them at higher risk for obesity and chronic illnesses like heart disease and diabetes.
Researchers call the "diet gap" disconcerting and predict that it will "have important public health implications," according to study co-author Dr. Frank Hu.
"Declining diet quality over time may actually widen the gap between the poor and the rich," Hu said.
He said the diet difference reflects an income gap that widened during the financial crisis, making healthy food less affordable and out of reach for low-income families, while processed foods tend to be inexpensive and widely available in low-income neighborhoods.
The healthy-eating index for the Harvard study gives top scores to those who eat more than two cups of vegetables a day and at least four servings of fruit and a healthy fat, like nuts — the very foods that often come with the highest price tags at the grocery checkout.
A recent Feeding America study that interviewed 60,000 people in lines at food pantries found that the No. 1 coping mechanism for food insecurity was buying cheaper, less nutritious food. It also found a high correlation for chronic diseases like diabetes and hypertension, once again linking poverty, poor diet and chronic disease.
A JAMA response to the study noted the "growing chasm" between the diet and health of the poor and the well-off; it suggested that government programs like food stamps may not solve the problem and that limiting government benefits to healthy food might be a better solution.