CHICAGO ? All generations of adults throughout the United States understand the principles of healthy eating. Although most adults recognize the need to eat healthy, their translation into healthy eating behavior varies by generation, states a new study by The NPD Group.

Older generations eat more healthfully than the younger generations. However, four out of five adults (nearly 170 million people) have a diet that needs improvement, the study finds.

Titled Healthy Eating Strategies by Generation, which identifies the gaps between actual consumption behaviors and intentions, the study finds that younger generations ? Generation X, Y and younger Boomers, ages 21 to 54, have the least-healthful diets. Older consumers, ages 54 and up, often have the greatest need to eat healthy due to underlying medical conditions, and are driven to do so.

What the generations have in common is a shared understanding of what constitutes healthy eating. Adult consumers define healthy eating consistently and are aware of the top characteristics of healthy eating and of a healthy lifestyle: exercise regularly, consume well-balanced meals, eat all things in moderation, limit/avoid foods with saturated fat or cholesterol or trans fats, and drink at least eight glasses of water per day.

“Educating consumers about proper health and nutrition need not be the primary goal for food manufacturers,” said Dori Hickey, director of product development at NPD and author of Healthy Eating Strategies by Generation. “Connecting the dots for consumers in terms of a product benefit to a fundamental characteristic of healthy eating is more the challenge.

The nutritional value of foods is also very important for many adults, according to the report, which draws on NPD’s continual tracking of actual consumption behavior over the past three decades. Almost 85 million adults ranked nutritional value/healthful as first or second in importance as a need driver in deciding what to eat and drink; taste and price/value are in the top three for the three younger generations. For older consumers, freshness replaces price/value in ranked importance.

Although many aspects of their diets could use improvement, overall, the largest deficiencies in adults’ diets are insufficient intake of fruits, vegetables and dairy products and over consumption of total fats. Consumption of total fats is the most critical for those 54 and older.

“It comes down to adult consumers needing help to improve the healthfulness of their diets,” Hickey said. “Knowing which consumer groups need the most help and understanding how to address consumers’ current and future needs and desires for healthy food is the opportunity for food and beverage marketers.”