Healthy Diets May Not Be As Good As People Assumed

Meredith Corp.

Study participants met with a dietitian. The purpose was to monitor what they ate and drank on a daily basis. This was when they found a gap between perception and reality, something that could hinder people from achieving true health, as per experts.

Those who are trying to shed off some pounds may feel that they’re losing their willpower as the days progress. This is because of many factors such as cravings, temptation, and the like. For some, they don’t see the scale move even when they stick to the plan. When this happens, their resolve weakens. Researchers wanted to know about this and they saw that part of the problem is due to the common dietary perceptions and misperceptions.

Those trying to lose weight often overestimate how healthy the plan they’re following is. This knowledge gap makes or breaks it. The preliminary research that was made will be shown at the American Heart Association’s Scientific Sessions 2022, in Chicago and virtually on November

.“We found that while people generally know that fruits and vegetables are healthy, there may be a disconnect between what researchers and healthcare professionals consider to be a healthy and balanced diet compared with what the public thinks is a healthy and balanced diet,” Jessica Cheng, PhD, said. She is the study doctor and a postdoctoral research fellow in epidemiology at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health and in general internal medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital, both in Boston. She talked about this in a press release.


Almost 50% of Adults in the U.S. Try to Diet on a Yearly Basis

Almost 50 percent of U.S. adults try to diet every year. This was found by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) (PDF). Many of them try to integrate more fruits, vegetables, and salads in their meals.

This is something they need to improve on. A CDC report (PDF) that was published on January of this year that saw only about 1 in 8 adults consume the recommended serving of 1.5 to 2 cups of fruit each day. There was also 1 in 10 eat who followed recommended 2 to 3 cups daily of vegetables.

Most Diets Need to be Adjusted

To see if the perceptions aligned with reality, researchers recruited 116 adults aged 35 to 58 years old. They lived in the Pittsburgh area and were trying to shed off pounds.

The participants individually met with a dietitian to talk about nutrition. They monitored what they ate and drank every day for one year using the Fitbit app. They were also asked to weigh daily and wear a Fitbit device to track physical activities.

The researchers then evaluated their diets from start to end before giving each one of them a Healthy Eating Index (HEI) score that considered the types of foods they ate.

The HEI is a measure to assess how closely a dietary pattern aligns with with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. They then assigned a score of 0 to 100 based on how much they had the different dietary components like fruits, vegetables, whole and refined grains, meat and seafood, sodium, fats and sugars The ones that garnered the highest scores ate healthier. They were also tasked to complete a 24-hour food recall for two days for every point in time.

When the year was done, the participants had to look at the HEI guidelines and score themselves. The self-assessment at the start was a “look back” as they scored the beginning and end of their diets; the difference between the beginning and the ending score was the perceived diet change. The difference of 6 or less between the researchers’ and the participant’s HEI perceived score was meant that they were in “good agreement.”

The researchers discovered that 3 out of 4 participants’ scores were in poor agreement. They didn’t align with the assessments of the experts.

In looking at the changes over the course of the one-year study, only 1 in 10 participants made correct estimations on how much they had improved their diets. As an average, the improvement of the quality was only by 1 point based on the researcher-assessed point system. As for the self-estimate, they saw an 18-point improvement.

“People attempting to lose weight or health professionals who are helping people with weight loss or nutrition-related goals should be aware that there is likely more room for improvement in the diet than may be expected,” said Dr. Cheng.


Limitations Seen on the Study

The authors did acknowledge the limitations found. The participants they had were mostly female (79 percent) and the majority (84 percent) were white. This may not be applicable to many groups of population. Moreover, they only assessed diet quality perceptions at the end. Assessments that happened while the study was ongoing could have helped to answer questions such as whether perception turned more realistic over the course or whether perception assists or stops them from making changes in the diet.

Lack of Awareness May Bring About Weight Gain

“Overestimating the perceived healthiness of food intake could lead to weight gain, frustrations over not meeting personal weight loss goals or lower likelihood of adopting healthier eating habits,” said Deepika Laddu, PhD, in a press release. She is an assistant professor in the College of Applied Health Sciences at the University of Illinois in Chicago. She’s also the chair of the AHA’s Council on Lifestyle Behavioral Change for Improving Health Factors.

While dieters often overestimate the health of the foods they have, the findings made was still an added support for behavioral counseling interventions. Such interventions are frequent contacts with healthcare professionals to solve the gaps in perception in order to have a more long-lasting, realistic healthy eating behavior, Dr. Laddu also said.

Link between 2 out of 3 Heart Disease-Related Deaths and Food Choices

Healthy eating is vital for general health, especially for the heart as well as longevity, said AHA. Heart disease is the top cause for death in both men and women in the U.S. According to the CDC, there is an estimated 659,000 deaths every year.

More than two-thirds of heart disease-related deaths all over the world can be pointed to food choices, according to a study published in October 2020 in the European Heart Journal Quality Care Clinical Outcomes. The authors of the study made an estimate and saw that six million casualties could have been saved if they only had better diets.

Where to Find Reliable Information on the Nutritional Content of Food

Dietary guidance from the AHA was issued in 2021. They made the following recommendations:

  • Include more variety of fruits and vegetables
  • Whole grains are better than refined grains
  • Go for better protein sources, one that’s more lean
  • Go for full-fat versions of dairy products
  • Opt for liquid plant oils rather than tropical oils and animal fats
  • Try to lower intake of ultra-processed foods
  • Lower intake of foods and beverages with added sugar
  • Go for ones with little or no added salt
  • Limit alcohol intake

It’s all about educating yourself especially when it comes to the nutritional content of food. Be wary of misinformation on the internet, advised Alice H. Lichtenstein, DSc. She is the chair of the writing group for the AHA statement and senior scientist and director of cardiovascular nutrition team at the USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University in Boston.

Dr. Lichtenstein said that you need to equip yourself with the knowledge that comes from reliable and reputable sources such as government websites like the FDA or the National Institute of Health (NIH). “Advocacy organizations such as the AHA or the American Diabetes Association will have sound dietary advice as well,” she said.

You also need to check the internet for nutritional information on takeout or prepared meals. Even for prepared foods or takeout items, the less processed it is the better the better it will be for you. Just remember that when something sounds or appears “too good to be true,” then it probably is, she says. Always talk to your healthcare provider when you have questions.

Healthy Isn’t Always ‘All or Nothing’

In terms of healthy eating, it doesn’t have to be “all or nothing, to experience the benefits,” said Susan Strom, RD, at UNC Health in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. She was not part of the research.

“Take a look at your typical intake and decide you want to change one thing and go from there,” she said. “Maybe it’s to stop drinking soda or to make sure you eat at least one fruit and one vegetable every day or start cooking dinner at home more versus getting takeout.”

It’s all about making changes that you can see yourself doing in the long term, she suggested. “Keep adding in new goals for yourself with regards to foods and activity in order to not only improve the quantity of your life, but the quality of your life as well.”

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