May 5, 2011 -- Though researchers have repeatedly sounded the alarm about America’s bulging waistlines, a new survey shows that those warnings appear to be falling on deaf, or at least confused, ears when it’s time to eat.
The survey, which has been conducted since 2006 by the nonprofit International Food Information Council (IFIC) Foundation, finds that concern about weight and weight loss efforts are at an all-time low.
Most respondents don’t count calories, and more people admit that they’re not trying to balance the number of calories they eat and burn.
“My first response is exhaustion,” says longtime nutrition educator Marion Nestle, PhD, MPH, a professor of nutrition, food studies, and public health at New York University.
“If people want to lose weight, they have to eat less,” she says.
Levels of inactivity appear to be on the rise, too. More Americans say they are sedentary in 2011 compared to 2010, 43% and 37% respectively.
At the same time, fewer people in the survey considered themselves to be overweight this year compared to last, though their reported weights and heights would have landed them in that category.
Compared to 2010’s survey, more people say their diets are healthy and fewer are making dietary changes.
Taste and Price Are Food-Buying Considerations
At a time of economic uncertainty, however, the survey suggests weight loss may be on the back burner for a lot of people.
Taste is the main reason people buy food at the grocery store or a restaurant, but price is catching up as a main consideration. Though 87% of people report taste is their top priority, 79% made price the No. 2 factor in food and drink decision making -- a 15% jump for price since 2006. Healthfulness of food ranked third: 66% said a food’s nutritional quality affected their food choices.
“Other things are top of mind,” says Marianne Smith Edge, MS, RD, senior vice president of food safety and nutrition at the IFIC Foundation. “But it is interesting that it’s happening in an environment where there’s an increased emphasis on health and wellness.”
Other experts agree.
“I honestly think Americans have a very overwhelmed lifestyle,” says Kimberly Thedford, MS, RD, a senior research nutritionist at Northwestern University in Chicago, “that it’s challenging for them to give the attention to their food intake that they need to, other than for enjoyment.”
In the 2011 survey, 50% of respondents considered themselves to be overweight compared to 57% in 2010.
The number who considered themselves to be obese held steady, however, at about 8% in both those years.
According to information on weight and height collected by the online survey, about 34% of the respondents were actually overweight, and 34% were obese.
That finding is interesting for a couple of reasons, Smith Edge says. First, it represents an overall drop in the number of people who think of themselves as being overweight, and second, it shows that many people underestimate how bad their weight problem really is.
Only 57% of participants say they are concerned about their weight this year, down from 70% in 2010 and an all-time low for the survey.
Those who say they are trying to lose or maintain weight is also down, 69% in 2011 compared to 77% in 2010.
“This is a somewhat ominous trend,” says David L. Katz, MD, MPH, founding director of the Yale University Prevention Research Center in New Haven, Conn.
Katz thinks the survey may be picking up signs of a “normalization” of larger body sizes. As friends and families also grow in girth, people feel OK by comparison.
“We might like to be OK at any size, but the simple fact of the matter is that we’re not,” he says. “We are getting diabetes, we are getting heart disease, we are getting preventable cancers, many of them having to do with our size, and that’s not OK. These things are happening in our children, and that’s not OK.”
Still Confused About Calories
The number of people who say they can estimate the number of calories they need for their age, height, and weight has held steady at 9%.
Forty-two percent say they never count calories. Only 40% of those answering the survey agreed that eating and drinking more calories than are burned leads to weight gain.
Yet calories are the first thing people say they look at on a nutrition label, according to the survey.
With regard to specific dietary components, more than half of those surveyed said they were trying to limit sugar consumption, while 71% said they were trying to limit dietary fats.
Slightly more than half, 53%, said they were trying to limit sodium, about the same percentage as previous years.
“I think there is a certain element of burnout,” says Katz.
“When you’re relying on quick-fix solutions to this problem, and you’ve tried them all, you do reach a point where you stop believing,” he says. “Maybe to some extent, people have decided that they’re going to stop trying.”
“Nobody wants to acknowledge a problem they can’t fix,” Katz tells WebMD. “We have not yet done a nearly good enough job empowering people to make them feel like they really can get to the prize -- the prize being sustainable weight loss, their weight controlled without being hungry and miserable for the rest of your life.”