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Study finds racial differences in eating patterns and food purchases among urban older women

Understanding dietary and shopping habits in elders may reduce disparities in nutrition-related health outcomes

  Wenjun Li, PhD

Wenjun Li, PhD

A new study led by public health researcher Wenjun Li, PhD, compared the diet quality of older black and white women in metropolitan Washington, D.C., and found significant differences between what they bought, how far they traveled to shop and what they ate.

“Racial differences in diet quality may contribute to health disparities in older age, but successful promotion of healthy eating among older blacks may help reduce disparities in nutrition-related health outcomes,” said Dr. Li, associate professor of medicine in the Division of Preventive and Behavioral Medicine. “Health education and promotion are necessary for people to understand that they need to adapt to their changing body conditions with new lifestyle habits as they age

Published online Nov. 5 by the Journal of Nutrition, Health and Aging, the study gleaned data about multiple components of dietary quality and access to food purchases in socioeconomically diverse neighborhoods. Data points included health status, lifestyle factors, daily food consumption and food purchasing habits including locations, distance and frequency. The study was conducted at MedStar Diabetes Research and Innovation Institute in Washington, D.C., in collaboration with co-principal investigator Michelle Magee, MD, associate professor of medicine at Georgetown University, and senior author of the article. Ninety-seven women aged 65 and older, including 49 white, 44 black and four who did not identify their race, were enrolled.

Substantial racial disparities emerged although findings were mixed: Blacks averaged a significantly lower diet quality than whites, including lower consumption of vegetables, fruits, nuts and legumes, and cereal fiber. Whites averaged significantly more daily calories, fiber, calcium and potassium, but consumed more caffeine and alcohol. Blacks shopped less frequently, traveled for a longer time from home to their usual food store, and ate out at restaurants somewhat less frequently than whites.

However, blacks and whites had approximately equal scores in several areas including the ratio of red to white meat consumed; an association between a higher frequency of grocery shopping and higher caloric intake; and the correlation between traveling a greater distance from home to store and a greater percentage of protein in the diet.

“We know individual nutritional behaviors are very complex, depending on a person’s health conditions, perceptions and knowledge of health behaviors. They are also influenced by the environment,” said Li, lead author of the article. “Racial differences in diet quality may contribute to health disparities in older age, but successful promotion of healthy eating among older blacks may help reduce disparities in nutrition-related health outcomes. Our ultimate goal is to use this detailed information to more accurately predict the behaviors that lead older people to eat a healthier diet, and to develop racially and culturally appropriate programs to promote healthy eating.”

Related studies examining gender, racial and rural-urban differences in diet and physical activity in older adults are underway. Li and Dr. Magee hope the comprehensive information will be used by community service providers, health professionals and family members to pinpoint exactly what problems individuals have with accessing and eating an adequate diet so that interventions and nutritional counseling can be more effective.

“Our data suggest that racial, socioeconomic and cultural differences as well as perceptions of neighborhood resources should be carefully considered when designing community-based programs to promote healthy eating among urban older women,” said Li.

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