The government routinely surveys and assesses the American population for a variety of health and nutrition parameters. Surveys of food habits are extremely valuable because they give scientists an idea of the kinds and amounts of foods that the average American eats. From this information, researchers can figure out the nutrient level and the public’s nutritional status, especially when they combine the dietary data with blood tests and other health information. Some of the surveys also obtain information on nutrition knowledge and behaviours. The final benefit is when health care workers such as dieticians and physicians use survey results to help identify people who might be at risk for nutritional deficiencies and to plan nutrition education programs based on the needs of most Americans.
Among the big surveys is the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES); several have already been completed over the past few decades. One aspect of our health that NHANES checks is our nutrient intake; they do this by asking people what they usually eat and what they’ve recently eaten. Then, some “lucky” researcher gets to pore over the mounds of information collected and computer-analyze the foods for nutrient content. NHANES also measures and weighs people of all ages and takes blood and urine samples to see how healthy we are.
Another government survey of the American diet is the Continuing Survey of Food Intakes by Individuals (CSFII). The most recent CSFII, known as What We Eat in America, covered a three-year period from 1994 to 1996 and surveyed Americans on their food consumption. In 1989, CSFII added a telephone follow-up survey to measure what Joe Consumer knows and his attitude about a healthy diet, because this influences his food choices and his nutrient intake. The recent CSFII reached 16,000 Americans and the follow-up survey, 5,000.
So what’s the diagnosis? The results are mixed; most Americans seem to be getting enough of many of the essential nutrients, but some of us are falling short. Some key nutrients are nowhere near what is needed to protect against chronic diseases such as heart disease. Two vitamins which came up short are vitamin E and B6 Also, although nutritionists have been promoting the benefits of dark green and deep yellow veggies, Americans are eating less than an ounce of these each day. On the plus side, intake of the other twelve vitamins appears to be adequate for most of us.
Although some Americans appear to be knowledgeable regarding the importance of a healthy diet and exercise, a significant number do not seem to value these contributors to health. When people were surveyed about the personal importance of each Dietary Guideline, some of the numbers were surprising in light of the experts’ definition of a healthy diet: only 30 percent of men and 37 percent of women said that choosing a diet with “plenty of breads, cereals, rice, and pasta” was very important; 61 percent of men and 73 percent of women stated that choosing a diet with “plenty of fruits and vegetables” was very important. In summary, we still have a long way to go to improve our nutritional health, especially in translating what we learn into action and good habits over a lifetime.