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U.S. Dietary Research: Patterns, Trends, and Determinants

U.S. on Map

Since 1980, Dr. Barry Popkin has studied dietary patterns in the United States using nationally representative dietary surveys. Along the way, he and the UNC-CH team have developed an array of tools to use in that initiative, including, for example, a way to link each food consumed in each survey to a standardized food composition table that facilitates the analysis of nutrients. This new approach has been used to identify trends in foods, nutrients, and eating patterns among various subpopulations of interest. Other measures created to use with the surveys have included overall dietary quality indices and detailed health-related food grouping schemes. Food and nutrient intake data have been coupled with economic and demographic data to provide a basis for examining the effect of a maternal work force on childrens’ eating behaviors and the effect of eating away from home on overall nutrient intake.

Most of these studies have focused on dietary behavior measured in terms of foods consumed, overall dietary quality, place, and meal patterns. For example, they have explored the effect of location of eating (at-home versus an array of away-from-home options); time of the day and types of foods eaten at breakfast, snacks, and meals in general; the overall food group patterns and trends; beverage patterns and trends highlighting all caloric sources as well as water; sources of added sugar and high fructose corn syrup; and most recently a full decomposition of trends into the contribution of portion sizes, energy density, and number of eating occasions to overall caloric increases.

Most of these studies focus on dietary behavior at the food group and eating event and location level. The UNC-CH group also developed the first U.S. Diet Quality Index and its updates.

Current research themes explore:

  • Key trends in snacking and overall eating occasions
  • Water versus other beverage consumption
  • Sources of caloric change
  • Claims of the food industry for changing caloric intake and overall consumer behavior to reduce obesity.