Nine out of ten women think they eat well. Most of them are singing those praises to the wind. In researching my latest book – Nutrition for Women, 2nd edition (Owl Books 2003), I found that only 1 percent of us meet even minimum standards of a balanced diet. According to a USDA study, less than 19 percent of women who rated their diets as excellent, actually ate reasonably well.

Women’s eating styles are more like an hour-glass than a pyramid. We eat unprecedented amounts of sugar and fat from the top of the Food Pyramid and platters of refined grains from the bottom tier, but are sorely lacking in the vegetables, fruits, milk products, and other nutritious foods in the middle of the Pyramid. It’s not that we don’t know better. The majority of women know it’s important to cut back on sugary and fatty foods, yet only a third of us meet the recommendations to keep fat at no more than 30 percent of calories and the average woman consumes 158 pounds of sugar each year. We also are whole-grain phobic, including less than one serving of brown rice, whole wheat, quinoa, or any other real grain in our daily diets.

One reason why our beliefs don’t match reality is that few women tell the truth about what they eat. Study after study shows that we underestimate what we eat, by up to 700 calories a day! We also overestimate how much we exercise and how many vegetables we eat (no, the lettuce on that cheeseburger is not a serving!). The more overweight we are or the more we diet, the more we crunch the numbers, especially when it comes to foods high in fat and sugar. That’s because fat, sugar, and refined grains are found together in the same processed foods, and people don’t want to admit they eat much of these. (By the way, this is a peculiarity of American women, since women in other cultures accurately report their eating habits.)

The more we graze from the Pyramid’s top tier, the more we fall from nutritional grace. According to a report from USDA, half of women think their diets are adequate in calcium, yet only 20 percent met the daily recommendations of 1,000 to 1,200 milligrams. More than half of women think they get enough iron, but only about six in every ten women actually do. Our diets are low in vitamins, including A, D, C, E, B6, and folic acid. Minerals, such as magnesium and zinc, also are typically low

OK, so some of us are in serious diet denial. The good news is that it takes only a few simple steps to produce big-time health results. Women would be well on their way to better health if they:

  • Increased their intake of unprocessed foods, such as vegetables, fruits, nuts, legumes, and whole grains.
  • Used only nonfat milk or calcium-fortified soymilk.
  • Minimized processed foods high in fat, refined grains, and sugar, especially when eating out.
  • Complimented this really-good diet with a well-balanced multiple vitamin and mineral program.