Many people think they make healthy food choices, but they may be viewing their diet through rose-colored glasses.
That's the main finding of a new study that aimed to identify disconnects between how healthfully Americans think they eat and how they actually do.
"It appears difficult for adults in the United States to accurately assess the quality of their diet, and most adults believe the quality of their diet is more healthful than it really is," said study author Jessica Thomson. She's a research epidemiologist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Stoneville, Miss.
For the study, the researchers asked participants to rate their diet as excellent, very good, good, fair or poor. Folks also completed 24-hour food questionnaires. Then, the researchers compared answers to see how well responses to the two exercises matched up.
In short: They didn't.
Of more than 9,700 people, roughly 85% were off base when asked to rate the quality of their diet, and almost all overestimated how healthy it was.
"They perceived their diet as very good when in fact their diet was poor," Thomson said.
Those who rated their diet as poor tended to be far more accurate, the study showed. Their rating matched that of the researchers more than nine times out of 10.
In the other four rating categories, between 1% and 18% of participants accurately assessed the quality of their diet.
More research is needed to figure out how to bridge this divide.
"We first must understand what factors individuals consider when thinking about the healthfulness of their diet," Thomson said.
Her team wanted to find out whether a simple question could be used as a screening tool for nutrition studies. Previous studies have found that self-rated assessments can be a strong predictor of health and risk for early death.
The findings, which dovetail with previous studies, were presented Tuesday at an online meeting of the American Society for Nutrition. Research presented at medical meetings should be considered preliminary until published in a peer-reviewed journal.
The gap uncovered in this study is between knowledge and action, said Shelley Maniscalco, a Washington, D.C.-based dietitian who reviewed the findings.
"People largely know that they need to eat more fruits and vegetables, that whole grains are good for them, and that they should eat fewer fats and fried foods," she said.
The key is making it easier for people to eat nutritious foods that taste good by teaching them how to cook and providing them with easy-to-follow recipes, Maniscalco said.
And then, people need to remember: Change doesn't happen overnight.
"People get overwhelmed when they try to make big changes all at once," she said. "A good place to start is to avoid saying 'I am on a diet' or 'I am going on a diet.'"
Why? That's because it implies that a diet is temporary.
"You are ready to go off of it at any moment," Maniscalco said. "Change your mindset and, instead, say 'I am taking these small steps to improve eating in a way that will benefit my health.'"