The USDA Just Gave Americans a Grade on Healthy Eating—And It’s Not Pretty

Last Update: March 11, 2020

It’s no secret that the Standard American Diet—including lots of processed foods, sugar, salt, and fat—is not doing us any favors in the health department. 117 million Americans (that’s about half of us)  suffer from one or more preventable diseases, many of which are connected to diet and nutrition.

It’s pretty obvious that overall, the country isn’t at it’s healthiest. The average adult consumes more than 150 pounds of sugar every year. By 2030, half of all Americans will be obese, and childhood obesity rates have more than doubled in children in the last three decades.

But now, the United States Department of Agriculture has given us a definitive answer on just how poor the country’s eating habits really are.

And it’s basically an F.

Here’s how they came to that conclusion. Since 1999, the USDA has kept what it calls the Healthy Eating Index, a 100-point system that measures how closely the nation’s food choices align with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, a list of expertly written suggestions for how much and what we should be eating. The USDA and the Department of Health and Human Services publishes a new set of guidelines every five years—and recently updated them for 2015 to 2020.

After the USDA released the new guidelines, a lead nutritionist for the department published a blog post analyzing how Americans ate between 1999 and 2012.

Bad news first: Americans only scored a 59 out of 100, based on our cumulative “intakes of total fruit, whole fruit, total vegetables, greens and beans, whole and refined grains, total protein foods, seafood and plant-based protein foods, sodium, and calories from solid fats, added sugar, and alcohol beyond a moderate level.”

OK, it looks pretty dire, but there is a silver lining: Our HEI score has steadily improved since 1999, which it was first implemented. Back then, Americans scored just 49. The upward trajectory of America’s healthy eating is a welcome sight for sure—but it’s important to remember that rates of diet-related diseases and obesity have also risen during the same time period.

“Given the robust science behind the Dietary Guidelines, it is not an understatement to suggest that if we were to eat closer to the Dietary Guidelines—and saw our nation’s HEI scores get closer to 100—we would see reductions in the prevalence of diet-related chronic disease,” writes Dr. Tusa Rebecca Schap, lead nutritionist with the USDA, in the blog post. She adds that the USDA is currently adapting the HEI to account for the new dietary guidelines.

Here’s another piece of good news: All is not lost, and as a country, there’s still time to change our eating habits for the better. The recommendations in the just released guidelines reinforce what most of us already know—that we should be eating a variety of fruits and vegetables, proteins, and whole grains, and limiting the amount of sugar, sodium, and saturated and trans fats. Let’s heed the USDA’s advice, and start making healthier choices little by little.

Think of this grade as a midterm assessment—there’s still time to improve it before the final exam.

Photo credit: Natalie Jeffcott via Stocksy

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Steve Holt

Steve Holt's stories about food, nutrition and food politics are found at Civil Eats,, Boston Magazine, and elsewhere. He's been featured in the Best Food Writing anthology. Follow his tweets and Instagrams @thebostonwriter.

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