Global Dietary Trends: Are We Eating Better or Worse?

A recent study delving into global dietary trends over nearly three decades has revealed that diets worldwide have experienced modest improvements in healthiness. This extensive analysis, encompassing data from 185 countries across various age groups, provides valuable insights into the state of global nutrition and offers a foundation for improving dietary guidelines.

The Quest for Healthier Diets

Poor diets are a significant contributor to global preventable mortality, and understanding dietary trends is essential for promoting better health. While the components of an optimal diet are generally well-established, how commonly these diets are consumed globally remains uncertain. Previous studies often focused on limited subsets of countries and typically excluded individuals under 25 years old. Therefore, a more comprehensive investigation of dietary patterns across different countries and age groups could contribute to more effective dietary guidelines and recommendations.

Global Dietary Trends Unveiled

Researchers conducted an extensive analysis of dietary patterns and trends among adults and children in 185 countries between 1990 and 2018. They collected data from nationally and subnationally-representative surveys that included individual-level dietary intake and biomarker surveys. In total, data from 1,248 dietary surveys were analyzed, with 73.9 surveys including data on children aged 0-19 and 64.5 on adults aged 20 or older.

The study aimed to assess diets using the Alternative Healthy Eating Index (AHEI), which recommends the consumption of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, legumes, healthy fats, and limited quantities of red and processed meat, sugary beverages, and sodium. Diets were rated on a scale of 0 to 100, with 0 representing a poor diet and 100 an optimal diet.

Slow but Steady Improvement

The study found that global AHEI scores increased modestly by 1.5 points between 1990 and 2018, rising from 38.8 to 40.3. However, the extent of improvement varied by country. In 2018, only ten countries, representing a fraction of the world’s population, achieved dietary scores of 50 or above. These high-scoring countries included Vietnam, Iran, Indonesia, and India. In contrast, Brazil, Mexico, the United States, and Egypt had the lowest scores, ranging from 27.1 to 33.5.

Interestingly, the mean AHEI scores in 2018 for children and adults were similar, ranging between 38.2 and 42. However, regions with individuals aged 5 and under and those aged 75 and over tended to have the highest AHEI scores.

Variations in Dietary Habits

Globally, children consumed less fruit, non-starchy vegetables, and seafood omega-3 compared to adults. However, they consumed more sodium and polyunsaturated fats. Additionally, higher education attainment was associated with higher AHEI scores in most regions, except for the Middle East, North Africa, and Sub-Saharan Africa, where no differences were observed.

Implications for Dietary Choices and Policies

These findings offer valuable insights into improving dietary choices worldwide. Dr. Victoria Miller, one of the study’s authors, emphasized that policies to increase the intake of produce, seafood, and plant oils would significantly enhance dietary quality in regions such as South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. Furthermore, addressing the increased consumption of red and processed meat and sodium in regions like Asia and Latin America could lead to improved dietary quality.

However, Dr. Marco Springmann, Senior Researcher on Environment and Health at the University of Oxford, highlighted the need for clear policy measures to empower individuals to make healthy and sustainable dietary choices. Without such policies, there is a risk of minimal progress in improving diets and their associated health and environmental impacts.

In conclusion, this study underscores the importance of specific national and subnational policies to enhance nutrition globally. While data on diets are challenging to collect comprehensively, taking a broader perspective reveals essential patterns and trends that can inform policies aimed at improving nutrition worldwide.

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