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Overestimating Healthy Eating

There’s a big disconnect between what people do and what they think they do!

Girl standing in front of the fridge weighing food options for healthy eating

New research confirms that many people overestimate their healthy eating habits.

Findings presented at the American Heart Association’s Scientific Sessions 2022 in Chicago shows that people trying to lose weight often overestimate how healthy their diet is, something that could sabotage weight-loss and health improvement efforts.

To find out how people’s perceptions of their eating habits matched up with reality, investigators from Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health recruited 116 adults (79% female) ages 35–58 in the Pittsburgh area who were trying to drop body weight. Study participants met one-on-one with a dietitian to discuss their nutrition and then tracked what they ate and drank daily for one year on the Fitbit app. Researchers evaluated the diets of the participants at the beginning and end of the study and gave each person a Healthy Eating Index score based on the types of foods participants reported eating.

When the 1-year trial was over, the subjects used the HEI to score themselves on the quality of their diet and how much it had improved. For 3 out of 4 people, there was a disconnect between what researchers and healthcare professionals consider to be a healthy and balanced diet compared with what the study subjects thought was a healthy diet.  Most people scored their diets to be more nutritious than they were.

In judging the change in their diet throughout the 12-month study, only one in 10 participants correctly estimated how much they had improved their eating habits. A problem can arise when overestimating the perceived healthiness of food intake lowers the likelihood of implementing actual healthier eating habits such as going bigger on veggies.

See also: Yes, You Can Develop Better Eating Habits

Matthew Kadey, MS, RD

Matthew Kadey, MS, RD, is a James Beard Award–winning food journalist, dietitian and author of the cookbook Rocket Fuel: Power-Packed Food for Sport + Adventure (VeloPress 2016). He has written for dozens of magazines, including Runner’s World, Men’s Health, Shape, Men’s Fitness and Muscle and Fitness.

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