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When It Comes to Food, We Fudge a Little

Diet* Men and women have a distorted perception of what they eat and how much, overestimating the amount of healthy food.

September 16, 2002|SALLY SQUIRES | WASHINGTON POST

How much--and what--do you really eat? If you're like most people, the perception is very different from reality.

"People have this notion that their diet is better than it is," said Adam Drewnowski, director of the nutritional sciences program at the University of Washington in Seattle and author of several studies on food intake.

"People will say, 'Oh yeah, I drink orange juice every day.' " But food record studies--the kind of research where participants record everything that passes their lips for about two weeks--often show otherwise, he said.

Most people overestimate intake of healthful foods and--you may as well confess right now--underestimate consumption of unhealthful foods. But research also suggests some gender differences.

For example, men tend to exaggerate their consumption of vegetables, and women are more likely to underreport eating such high-calorie foods as chocolate and ice cream, Drewnowski said.

Those findings are echoed by a U.S. Department of Agriculture survey of 5,700 adults. Conducted by the department's Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion and released in 2000, the survey found striking differences between what participants thought they ate and what they actually consumed.

Some of the biggest gaps? Underestimating how many carbohydrates, fats, oils and sweets were eaten and overestimating intake of fruit, dairy products, meat, poultry, fish, beans, eggs and nuts, according to Peter Basiotis, director of the center and lead author of the study.

Here's the breakdown of perception versus reality by food groups. See how you compare:

Grains:

All adults believed they ate fewer of these carbohydrates (about two to three servings daily) than they actually consumed (roughly four to six servings per day). Even so, nearly all ate fewer than the daily recommendations, which range from six to 11 servings per day.

Fruit:

Men and women thought they ate more fruit than they really consumed. Men 19 to 50 years old were off the most, believing that they ate two servings daily, when they actually consumed only one. The recommendation is to eat three to four servings of fruit per day.

Vegetables:

Women were closest to the mark, perceiving that they consumed about 2.5 servings per day and in reality eating slightly less than two servings. But men and women fell short of the daily recommendation of about three to five servings a day of vegetables.

Milk/dairy foods:

All participants skimped on milk products, believing that they ate the recommended two to three servings per day. In truth, they actually consumed between one and 1.6 servings daily.

Meat/poultry/fish:

Everybody's reality fell short on this one. All respondents thought they consumed about three to four servings a day of these foods, but their food diaries showed they ate between 1.6 and 2.5 servings a day.

Fat, oils and sweets:

Participants were certain that they ate only about two servings per day of these high-calorie foods. The reality? They consumed three to 4.5 servings per day.

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