American adults eat too much processed meat and too little fish

A new analysis published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics indicates that US adults eat as much processed meat and as little fish as they did 18 years ago, despite public health guidelines to the contrary.


Regardless of growing health concerns about processed meat consumption, there have been no changes in the amount of processed meat consumption by American adults over the last 18 years, found a new study.

25% of American adults are still having more unprocessed red meat than the recommended level, and less than 15 percent meet the guidelines for fish/shellfish consumption. On the other hand, they are found to eating less beef and more chicken than they did 18 years ago.

This is for the first time, consumption of poultry exceeds that of unprocessed red meat.

For the study, scientists gathered the data from a nationally representative sample that consists of dietary data from nearly 44,000 US adults who participated in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), through 2016.

Scientists then measured study weighted, energy-adjusted mean consumption of processed meat, unprocessed red meat, poultry, and fish/shellfish.

In addition to the overall trends noted above using full NHANES data, the research team also compared NHANES data from 1999-2000 to 2015-2016. Key findings include:

Processed meats: Consumption remained unchanged – 182 grams/week compared with 187 grams/week.

Top five consumed (percentage among total, 2015-2016):

  • Luncheon meat (39 percent), sausage (24 percent), hot dog (9 percent), ham (9 percent), and bacon (5 percent)
  • Primary purchase locations: Stores and fast-food restaurants
  • Unprocessed red meat: Decreasing trend – 340 grams/week compared with 284 grams/week, primarily due to decreased consumption of beef (down by 78 grams/week).
  • Poultry: Increasing trend – 256 grams/week compared with 303 grams/week, primarily due to increased consumption of chicken (up by 34 grams/week)
  • Fish/seafood: Consumption remained unchanged – 115 grams/week compared with 116 grams/week

The low utilization of fish/shellfish among US adults could be because of its high retail value, lack of awareness of its health advantages, and concerns about mercury contamination in certain fish, even though the scientific evidence recommends that the advantages of fish intake surpass the potential dangers for most people.

Given that fish consumption (2015-2016) was just half of the suggested level in the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, efforts are expected to promote the consumption and variety of seafood, particularly those varieties high in omega-3 fatty acids.

Lead investigator Fang Fang Zhang, MD, Ph.D., Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, Tufts University, Boston, MA, USA said, “Findings of this study can inform public health policy priorities for improving diet and reducing chronic disease burden in the US. Because stores and fast-food restaurants are main purchase locations for processed meat, future policies may prioritize these as primary sites of intervention for reducing processed meat consumption among US adults.”

The new study in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, published by Elsevier.

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