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NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - While it can be hard for low-income families to afford fresh fruits and vegetables, disadvantaged Hispanic women tend to have healthier diets than their white and African-American counterparts, a study suggests.
Researchers found that among 603 mothers of children in Head Start programs in Alabama and Texas, diets tended to be too low in important nutrients. But Hispanic mothers did generally get more fruits and vegetables than white and African-American mothers did, and a lower percentage of their daily calories came from fat.
On average, the study found, Hispanic women consumed what health experts consider an adequate amount of fruits and vegetables -- 4.6 cups per day, based on detailed dietary questionnaires.
In contrast, white and black women averaged between 2 and 3 cups per day, the researchers report in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association.
The findings, they say, show that it is possible for low-income families to fit more healthy fare into their budgets.
"You see a lot of people on the news say you can't have a healthy diet on a low income," said lead researcher Dr. Sharon L. Hoerr, a professor of food science and nutrition at Michigan State University in East Lansing.
"This refutes the idea that it's impossible," she told Reuters Health.
Instead, Hoerr said, many low-income families need education on how to find relatively inexpensive healthy foods.
The Hispanic women in her team's study were likely buying more fruits and vegetables because they were following the traditional diets of their culture, which tend to be higher in beans, grains and produce than the typical U.S. diet.
So these women probably "prioritized" fruits and vegetables, Hoerr explained, and found ways to buy them on a budget. They are unlikely, for instance, to be buying often-pricey items like fresh berries, but instead opting for cheaper produce that goes a long way.
Buying from farmers' market vendors, or choosing canned or frozen vegetables over fresh, are some less expensive ways to get healthy foods into the family diet. But many families need to learn these strategies, according to Hoerr.
There are some education programs aimed at this, she noted, such as those linked with the government's Food Stamp and WIC programs.
"Those are the types of programs we need more of," Hoerr said.
SOURCE: Journal of the American Dietetic Association, April 2008.