An Examination of Veterans’ Diet Quality

Veterans, who make up about 7 to 8 percent of the U.S. adult population, are the focus of numerous Government programs, including healthcare and nutrition education programs administered by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. In these programs, registered dietitians and other nutrition professionals work with veterans and their families at the various Veterans Health Administration healthcare facilities to promote wellness and prevent disease. Consuming a healthy diet is associated with a reduced risk of diseases like type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular
disease, and certain cancers, resulting in lower healthcare costs. However, to our knowledge, there has not been a national assessment of veterans’ diet quality. Using the Healthy Eating Index
(HEI) of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the National Cancer Institute, we examine whether veterans have significantly better or poorer diets than nonveterans.

What Did the Study Find?
Like other Americans, individuals who have served on active duty in the U.S. Armed Forces, military reserves, or National Guard could benefit from improvements to their diet quality. Given their reported energy intake, veterans overconsume added sugars and solid fats and under consume fruits, vegetables, dairy products, and whole grains. However, after controlling for demographic characteristics and a general time trend, this study finds that veterans deviate further than nonveterans from Federal dietary recommendations:

• During the period 2003 to 2016, veterans attained an adjusted total HEI score 3.7 points below that attained by nonveterans (an expected score of 45.6 of 100 for veterans versus
49.3 of 100 for nonveterans). An individual’s overall HEI score is calculated by summing component scores, which measure how well the person satisfies recommendations for specific food groups and subgroups.
• Being a veteran is associated with lower HEI component scores for empty calories; veterans tend to acquire a greater share of their total calories from less nutrient-rich added sugars and solid fats.
• Added sugars accounted for about 13 percent of the average American adult’s daily caloric intake over the study period and the share was another 2 to 3 percentage