Exploring the sense and nonsense of food and health

Are Consumers Following Diet Advice?

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The previous blog told of how consumers perceive their dietary and health habits – but two recent reports may say otherwise.

The first one addresses how some people perceive whether their weight affects their health.  The research involved asking 450 randomly selected obese or overweight patients in the ER at a Florida hospital.  They asked two questions: Do you believe your present weight is damaging to your health, and has a doctor or other health professional ever told you that you are overweight?

About 47% of obese and overweight men believed their weight was a problem, while 53% did not.  Women were more aware of the health issues of obesity – about 62% of them said their weight was damaging their health.

Among the obese (a BMI of greater than 30), 70% agreed that their weight was a health problem, but that still left 30% who didn’t see it that way, i.e. their health wasn’t affected by their weight

In answer to the second question – only 36% of the overweight and obese men and 50% of the women reported their doctors had ever discussed weight with them.  The implications may be that people look to their doctors for health advice and if not given, may think that it’s OK to be overweight and nothing to worry about.  Another recent report found that 30% of those people with a BMI in the overweight range (25.0 – 29.9) thought of themselves as normal size.  About 70% of those in the obese range thought they were simply overweight.

Not all the blame falls on the physicians.  Some of the respondents may have lied or ashamed of being told about their weight and so said that their doctors did not mention it – or the doctor did and it just was never heeded.

Sometimes people wait until they get diabetes or have a heart attack before they realize that their weight may have been a problem.  When asked this question, some people will actually say “yes”.

The second report assessed the way consumers read Nutrition information on food products.  The results indicated that most did view the labels, but few looked at every component.  During a simulated grocery shopping exercise, 203 people looked at 64 grocery products on a computer monitor and then asked whether they would buy the product based on three elements: the Nutrition Facts Panel, a picture and a list of ingredients.

In addition, a computer with an eye-tracking device was used with the participants’ knowledge.  Thirty-three percent of the participants reported that they almost always look at the calorie content on the Nutrition Facts label; 31% said they almost always look at the total fat content, 20% said they looked at the trans fat content, 24% looked at the sugar content and 26% said they looked at the serving size. However, realistically from the eye-tracking device, only 9% actually looked at calorie count for most of the products and about 1% looked at each of the other components on almost all labels.

Currently, food labels are being reviewed as to what kind of format may be best for consumers to evaluate a food product.  Hopefully, a new format will be easier and more informative and actually be used by more people to make healthier choices.

A survey by Consumer Reports found that there is a dis-connect between reality and the answers most of us given when asked questions about our diet, how much exercise we get and our weight. In this survey, just one out of 10 people say their diet is unhealthy.

Part of the dis-connect may be the way food is marketed. Food products labeled as low fat, fat-free, 100 calories snack packs, may make people think they are eating healthier. Highly processed foods often have misleading names like Healthy Choice, Lean Cuisine, Smart Ones, etc that make people think the food is healthier than it really is.  The best way to know what is in a food is to look at the often-ignored ingredient list.  For example, granola may contain a lot of sugar in various forms, and the only way you can tell is by looking at the actual ingredients

When it comes to reporting vegetable servings, we include lettuce or salad greens – 78% said they eat a serving a week. And that lettuce is often iceberg lettuce loaded with blue cheese dressing.  We also think that fruit drinks count as fruit servings – they do but lots of them are loaded with sugar. Part of the problem is that sugar on a food label is stated as grams and most of us do not know how many teaspoons that represents.  FYI – 1 teaspoon of sugar contains 4 grams of sugar.  Women should limit their intake to 40 grams a day and men to about 50-60 grams.  A carton of low-fat yogurt can have 33 grams of sugar, but people don’t consider yogurt as unhealthy.

So there’s a lot of work to do – health messages must become easier for consumers to use.  The recent concept of Food Day may help to emphasize all aspects of food and its impact on our health, expanding waistlines, and the environment.  We have Earth Day every year – why not Food Day to give extra emphasis on how Americans eat and drink and think about food and our food systems.

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