Americans know it's important to lose weight and eat more healthfully, but misconceptions and bad choices are getting in their way, according to a survey by the International Food Information Council (IFIC) Foundation.
For example, 56% of Americans surveyed said they were trying to lose weight. Yet 9 out of 10 did not know how many calories they should be consuming each day (and nearly half wouldn't even hazard a guess).
For its second annual Food & Health Survey,the IFIC Foundation surveyed 1,000 adults over a three-week period in February and March, asking about their attitudes on food, nutrition, and health. The survey revealed six major "disconnects"- conflicts between our perceptions about diet and health and what we actually do, says IFIC Foundation President Susan Borra, RD.
"The diet disparities, or disconnects, highlight the gap between Americans’ desire to be healthier and the reality of how to make changes in day-to-day behavior," Borra says.
6 Diet Disconnects
Here are the major areas in which the survey found "diet disconnects" that could stand in the way of a healthier diet and lifestyle:
1. Calories. Some70% of those who reported trying to eat healthier said they were doing so because they wanted to lose weight. Yet only 11% of Americans knew how many calories they should be eating each day. (To find out your own recommended calorie level, go to https://www.mypyramid.gov/mypyramid/index.aspx.)
2. Diet and Exercise. Most Americans -- 84% -- say they are physically active for health benefits at least once a week. But 44% of those who are active say that they don't balance diet and physical activity to manage their weight. "Consumers need to understand that calories have to be balanced with physical activity -- either by eating less or exercising more -- to achieve weight control," says Bonnie Taub-Dix, RD, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association.
3. Breakfast. According to 90% of Americans, breakfast is the most important meal of the day (something most dietitians agree with). Still, less than half (49%) report eating it every day. (If this sounds like you, dietitians recommend stocking your kitchen with healthy "grab and go" breakfasts: low-fat yogurt, cereal bars, whole-grain cereal, and hard-boiled eggs.)
4. Fats. Americans' concern about how much and what kind of fats we eat is up from a year ago (from 66% to 72%) and we're specifically trying to consume less trans fats. But it seems we're as confused as ever about which fats are healthier. Some survey participants reported trying to eat less polyunsaturated fats, but this is one of the fats recommended for health benefits. (For the record, healthier fats include canola, olive, corn and safflower, though it's important to keep in mind that all fats are high in calories.)
5. Carbohydrates. Americans are getting the message that some types of carbs can improve the healthfulness of their diets. More than 70% of those surveyed said they are trying to eat more fiber and whole grains. But even though low-carb diets have seen a drop in popularity lately,more than 50% of Americans are still concerned about the amount of carbohydrates they consume.
6. "Functional" Foods. According to the survey, Americans believe that consuming specific foods and beverages can provide health benefits, like improving heart health (80%); digestive health (76%); and energy or stamina (76%). Yet more than 50% of those surveys say they don't actually consume food or beverages that deliver these benefits.
Eating Healthier: All Foods Can Fit Into a Healthy Diet
Despite these disconnects, some positive health messages are getting through. For example, the survey found that Americans are getting the message that all foods can fit into a healthy diet.
"We saw a shift away from people being reductionists, or consuming less food and beverage, to eating more healthful food and beverages," says Borra.
Adds Taub-Dix: "Balance is essential. You can’t just focus on calories or fats. You need to turn over packages and look at the nutrition label to choose foods that are rich in nutrients and reasonable in calories."
One message that dietitians say Americans should take to heart is this is this: Rather than trying to find the perfect diet or exercise routine, we should strive to make small, gradual improvements in diet and exercise behaviors.
"If Americans did nothing more than trim down their portions and became a little more active, it could make a big difference," says Taub-Dix. "I tell my clients to make a list of all the things they could improve and each week, tackle one of the behaviors, so the changes are small, sustainable and doable within the demands of their busy lives."