The Healthy Eating Index

By Hunter, Beatrice Trum | Consumers' Research Magazine, December 2003 | Go to article overview

The Healthy Eating Index


Hunter, Beatrice Trum, Consumers' Research Magazine


In 1989, the Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, developed the Healthy Eating Index (HEI). This tool allowed the Center to assess the overall quality of the population's diet on a regular basis.

The HEI is a summary measure of the quality of people's actual diets. The HEI computes 10 different components. Each component represents an aspect of a healthy diet. The HEI provides an overall picture of the type and quantity of foods that people eat, their compliance with official dietary recommendations, and the variety of their food choices.

Some components measure the degree to which a person's diet adheres to the serving recommendations for the major food groups of the Food Guide Pyramid: grains, fruits, vegetables, dairy products, and protein foods. Other components measure the percentages of total caloric intake (food energy) from total fat and saturated fat. Other components measure cholesterol and sodium. Lastly, the HEI measures the degree of food variety chosen by an individual.

Each of the HEI's 10 components has a score ranging from zero to 10. High scores indicate food intakes that fall within a satisfactory range; low scores, below a satisfactory range. The combined scores of the 10 individual components suggest how well an individual's diet matches official dietary recommendations. A total score above 80 suggests a good diet; between 51 and 80, a diet in need of improvement; and less than 51, a poor diet.

The most recent representative data available to compute the HEI are for the period of 1999 to 2000. The data indicate that most Americans need to improve their diets. Only 10% of the population were judged to have a good diet; 74%, in need of improvement; and 16%, a poor diet.

The population scored highest on cholesterol and variety. Both averaged 7.7 on the scale from zero to 10. Less than half of the population studied met the dietary recommendations for fruit (only 3.8 on the scale), and for dairy foods (only 5.9).

Of the population studied, only 17% consumed the recommended minimum daily numbers of servings for fruits; and only 30%, for dairy products. Average scores for the remaining HEI components ranged only between 6.0 and 6.9 on the scale. The HEI findings demonstrate that most Americans need to improve all aspects of their diets.

The findings also showed that the HEI scores varied by different factors. Females scored slightly higher than males. Children under 11 scored higher than most other age groups. …

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