Poor diets are the leading cause of death and disease globally, according to a 27-year study. A lack of healthy food and high sodium levels are some of the biggest American diet pitfalls, and poor nutrition contributes to the top six causes of death.
While “eating healthy” sounds simple in theory — eating your fruits and veggies, avoiding processed foods and excess sugar — it’s much more complicated in practice. What does a healthy meal look like? Are there healthy foods that are better for you than others? And what about the frequency of different food groups we’re supposed to eat? It might feel like you need to be a nutritionist or dietician to make sense of it all. That’s why we have national nutritional guidelines: to help make the long-term process of diet management easier.
How good do Americans think their diets are? We surveyed 850 Americans to find out how well they think they eat and how well reality stacks up to national guidelines.
A vast majority — 91% — of the people we surveyed rated their diet as “good” or better on a scale from “poor” to “excellent.” Most of these respondents (37.3%) rated their diets as “very good,” with “good” (30.2%) in a close second place. Of the 9% who thought their diet wasn’t great, only 1.2% categorized their food choices as “poor.”
People feel good, for the most part, about their dietary choices. Less than 10% of our respondents felt ambivalent or poorly about their diets, which may indicate a desire for change or recognition of less-than-stellar habits. Of course, personal interpretation of our health is vital as no one knows your body better than you, but these understandings aren’t created in a vacuum. Knowing the basics of what nutrients a body needs to function well allows us to understand whether or not our diets are “good.”
The United States federal guidelines around nutrition are updated every five years as research expands and our access to different foods changes. The current iteration of guidelines (Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020-2025) explores healthy nutrition slightly differently from the food pyramid you may have grown up with.
U.S. daily dietary guidelines have moved from a pyramid shape to a circular plate to understand better the proportions of food groups you should eat. MyPlate, a federal nutrition resource, offers a clear visual interpretation of these guidelines, which we’ll discuss in more detail below. And while the federal guidelines aren’t perfect (more than 50% of members in the organization that creates these guidelines have financial ties to the food and soft drink industry), they’re a good place to start.
There were some small but noticeable gender differences in our survey. Specifically, more men perceived their diet as “very good” or “excellent” compared to women. 61.3% of men rated their diet as the best or second-best score, whereas 60.2% of women did the same. The gender gap widens when looking at an “excellent” ranking: 25.5% of men said their daily food choices were excellent, compared to 20.3% of women. That’s a 5.2% disparity between those two gender groups.
Different genders have different dietary needs. Most variations are minor: for example, men need 56g of protein daily while women need 46g. They are as easily influenced by things like activity level and body mass index (BMI) as they are gender, but different genders still have distinct nutritional needs. Women are more likely to be knowledgeable about nutrition, as well as older adults and those who are more active. When you consider that much of mainstream dietary advice centers on men’s needs as the norm and more women are highly knowledgeable about nutrition, it makes sense that women would rate their diets slightly worse than men’s diets.
As good as we might feel about our diets, looking at how they line up with national guidelines might tell a different story. We asked our survey participants to give us an example of an average day’s meals, which we broke down into the five major food groups (fruit, vegetables, protein, dairy, and grains).
|Average American meal
The quantity of vegetables our survey participants eat is in line with national recommendations, as is dairy; they eat slightly more fruit than is recommended, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
The biggest differences between national standards and the average American diet lie in grain and protein consumption. Specifically, Americans consume 15.3% fewer grains and 10.6% more protein than recommended. This goes against a lot of what we’re told — that our diets are too full of carbohydrates and that many of us lack adequate protein intake. Of course, this survey didn’t specify serving sizes or quantities, so it’s impossible to say exactly how large this gap is. However, the fact it’s more than 10% in both cases is significant.
Almost half of all the people we surveyed get their greens more days than not. 48.4% reported eating vegetables 3-5 times a week. Except for protein, which is eaten 3-5 times a week by 37.5% of participants, most people reported eating the other food groups 1-2 times a week:
These averages aren’t a complete picture of individuals’ daily choices but reveal longer-term trends. Historically, the U.S. national guidelines didn’t tell us how many times a week we need to eat certain foods. Instead, they suggest we get specific servings of the different food groups per week. Now, MyPlate personalizes your daily recommended intake of each food group depending on your age and average daily caloric intake. For example, an adult who eats 2,000 calories a day should eat:
There are some trends among age groups regarding what foods are eaten regularly. Teenagers tend to consume the most fruits, vegetables, and grains. Meanwhile, older adults over 60 consume the most protein and dairy weekly.
Meal compositions aren’t the only way to track our overall nutrient intake. Other food-related habits and activities, such as eating out, can help clue us in on the quality of food we fuel our bodies with. Likewise, many people track their caloric intake but not their carbohydrate consumption or how many servings of fruit they eat.
Eating out is an easy — albeit often expensive — way to get a meal, whether you don’t have time to cook or don’t have the energy after a long day to make something nutritious. Eating at a restaurant or cafe allows us to bond with friends and family over food without hosting. It makes sense that restaurants and fast food chains are a cornerstone in fast-paced American lives. However, it’s seldom the healthiest option. When asked how frequently they eat out weekly, a majority of participants in our survey (62.2%) said they eat from a restaurant or fast food joint one or two times a week. Less than 5% (4.5%) said they eat out five or more times a week, and 11.8% said they don’t eat out regularly (0 times per week).
Our survey shows that young adults are slightly more likely to eat out. The average number of times people reported eating out is relatively consistent between ages 18 and 49, where 18- to 29-year-olds eat out 2.5 times a week and those ages 30 to 49 eat out 2.4 times a week. However, participants in their 50s and 60s reported eating out 2.1 and 1.6 times a week, respectively. Apps such as Uber Eats, DoorDash, GrubHub, and Postmates make it easy and convenient to order delivery (often without having to talk to anyone) and are often more accessible to those in younger age brackets.
Snacking — eating food between larger meals — isn’t bad nor inherently unhealthy. It can help you stay full for longer and get you some necessary nutrients if you eat a healthy snack. However, excessive snacking can be a problem when it’s mindless rather than mindful.
Most of our survey’s respondents snack one or two times a week (51.9%). Very few people (3.9%) don’t snack at all. More people snack three or four times a week (29.9%) than five or more times a week (14.4%).
Likewise, almost half (47.8%) of our participants drink soda once or twice a week, and 25.8% drink it three or four times a week. However, the third largest group (18.9%) doesn’t drink soda weekly. This could be diet or regular soda, but we didn’t count carbonated water or seltzers in this category. Soda generally has no health benefits other than a nice flavor and is loaded with sugar (even the diet versions). MyPlate and other federal organizations don’t encourage drinking soda, though their websites lack specific guidelines.
Caloric consumption is an oversimplification of nutritional needs, as calories are simply units of energy. Your daily calorie intake won’t tell you much about your nutritional health. However, knowing a rough estimate of daily caloric intake can be a launching point that can help you understand whether or not you’re getting enough energy. You can work out exactly how many calories your body needs to function by calculating your basal metabolic rate (BMR) based on your BMI, activity level, and more. However, the general recommendation is that adults eat between 2,000 and 2,500 calories daily.
A plurality of our respondents found themselves in that caloric range. 36.4% think they eat between 1,001 and 2,000 calories per day, which is slightly below average but is acceptable for most bodies to thrive on (especially if you’re trying to lose weight). Only 9.1% believed they eat 3,001 calories or more on an average day, which is generally more than a body needs (unless you’re an athlete, trying to bulk up, pregnant, or have discussed your diet with a doctor or nutritionist).
24.8% of people believed they consume between 500 and 1,000 calories daily. In the long term, eating below your BMR can lead to health problems related to malnourishment: 1,200 calories a day is generally considered the lowest possible amount you can eat healthily. Despite the constant influx of messaging telling Americans that they overeat, not eating enough calories is as much of a problem for your health. Even if you’re trying to lose weight, eating too little can put your body in starvation mode, and diets less than 1,000 calories a day are associated with significant nutrient deficiencies. Some people need to be on diets this slim for health reasons, but it should only be performed under the close eye of a medical professional.
Fifty-one people, or 6%, believed they consumed less than 500 calories on an average day, which is not enough to sustain brain function and can cause serious malnourishment. Consistently eating 1,000 calories or less a day may be a red flag for an eating disorder. Anorexia, bulimia, orthorexia, and OSFED (other specified feeding and eating disorders) are severe conditions with some of the highest mortality rates among mental health problems. However, some of this rather large number may be due to nutritional literacy problems or a misunderstanding of how many calories are actually in the food we eat daily.
We surveyed 850 people about their eating habits and perceptions around a “healthy” diet versus recommendations from national nutritional guidelines such as MyPlate.gov. We asked questions regarding how many calories they believe they intake on an average day, how many times a week they drink soda, if they think their diet is “excellent” or “poor,” and so on to find out the similarities and differences from what national nutrition guidelines deem as “healthy.”
Innerbody Research is committed to providing objective, science-based suggestions and research to help our readers make more informed decisions regarding health and wellness. We invested the time and effort into creating this report and other nutrition-related articles to spread awareness about what it means to eat “healthy” and how much of each food group is recommended to consume by national guidelines. We hope to reach as many people as possible by making this information widely available. As such, please feel free to share our content for educational, editorial, or discussion purposes. We only ask that you link back to this page and credit the author as Innerbody.com.
Harvard University T.H. Chan School of Public Health. (2019, September 24). What should I eat? The Nutrition Source. Retrieved July 19, 2022, from https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/what-should-you-eat/.
U.S. Department of Agriculture. (n.d.). MyPlate. Retrieved July 19, 2022, from https://www.myplate.gov/.
U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020-2025. 9th Edition. December 2020. Retrieved July 19, 2022, from https://www.dietaryguidelines.gov/.