An information diet

25 April 2018

It is often difficult for the public to know exactly how to improve their dietary choices. People have varying reasons for ditching unhealthy foods, from alleviating the symptoms of a condition to adopting a healthier lifestyle, but one thing’s for sure: there’s an abundance of helpful advice. However, Andrew Tunnicliffe discovers that health-conscious consumers might have too much information to sift through.

Calories, supplements, sugars, diets: these are all familiar words. Over the past decade or so, one could be forgiven for thinking that the human race had forgotten how to eat properly, having abandoned the desire to live a healthy life, or believing that moderation and keeping active were just too hard.

Meals are increasingly being eaten ‘on the go’, and microwaves are used for more main meals than is probably wise, but things are not as bad as they sometimes seem. In fact, there’s quite a bit to celebrate. Millennials are the demographic who are most likely to be thinking about what they eat. Apps, for example, can now track food and drink intake, while wearable devices monitor workouts and a person’s movement throughout their busy day. Social media also parades healthier lifestyles that one might aspire to.

Expert guidance

A recent report by the International Food Information Council Foundation made for interesting reading. The ‘2017 Food & Health Survey’ discovered that, “Overall, Americans say they take steps to eat healthy and understand the importance of expert nutrition guidance.”

It went on to state that many of those questioned during the research were familiar with, and even used, nutrition educational tools, such as the FDA’s and US Department of Agriculture’s MyPlate, a pie chart or ‘food circle’ showing the portion sizes of fruits, grains, vegetables, protein and dairy. From it, consumers can see how their meals should look, in terms of the five most important food groups.

The survey also found that one in seven US residents, which amounts to almost 46.5 million people, were engaging in a particular eating regime or diet. A large majority of those questioned were following ‘unbranded diets’, like vegetarianism or veganism. This result was followed by individuals taking part in weightloss programmes like Weight Watchers and Atkins. However, a high number of responses showed that people were conscious about the types of foods they were eating, opting to reduce fats, sugars, salts and carbohydrates.

The factors driving people away from healthy eating

However, there are a number of obstacles to obtaining a coveted, Instagram-style healthy diet. Cost and confusion are two major factors to consider. The former is simple, as the more foods and beverages cost, the less likely they are to be bought. Unfortunately, healthier diets are often perceived to be more expensive.

Research carried out by Future Thinking, as part of ‘The Grocery Eye’ – an annual online study that delves into the eating habits of 2,000 people – said that more than half of those questioned identified price as a barrier to eating better foods. Respondents also said that lower prices would encourage them to look at healthier options.

Misinformation can play an essential role in garnering negative perceptions. It seems that even the most health-savvy consumers are constantly questioning their own regimes and dietary choices, which could be the result of the media’s misleading reporting of research.

Conflicting messages have a negative impact

In a recent guest blog post for FoodBev Media, Future Thinking’s senior research director, Catherine Elms, revealed that 60% of those surveyed stated that recent media coverage affected their diet and the foods that they chose to consume. This statistic evidences the power the media has over the public when it covers a story concerning health, especially that sharing inaccurate information so publicly is bound to do more harm than good.

Elms went on to say that a similar study found 80% of US citizens had been confronted with different messages about what they should and shouldn’t be eating. “The danger here is consumers feel so bombarded with messages around healthy eating they don’t know what to believe any more,” she explained.

The ‘2017 Food & Health Survey’ concluded that, “Americans turn to friends and family to help us guide our food choices, but see others, like [dieticians] and healthcare professionals, as the most trusted sources. [This] may lead to the glut of conflicting nutrition information.”

Americans turn to friends and family to help us guide our food choices, but see others, like [dieticians] and healthcare professionals, as the most trusted sources. [This] may lead to the glut of conflicting nutrition information.
– 2017 Food & Health Survey

According to the survey, a third of respondents were influenced by their nearest and dearest. However, by digging a little deeper into the report, readers can find – at least in part– why consumers in developed nations like the US are confused. The main sources of influence people cited in the survey included healthcare professionals, including those who appear on TV or social media; dietician nutritionists; health and food bloggers; news articles or headlines alone; health-focused websites; and scientific studies.

Separating the wheat from the chaff

Clearly, the sources of influence for dietary choices are not only varied, but also expanding at an impressive rate; the challenge is to sift through all of it to find the information or advice that will prove to be genuinely useful. However, the problem with modern media is that good news doesn’t sell.

Take, for example, the recent treatment of saturated fats and coronary disease. In 2014, the British Heart Foundation was left to face the media when a study it carried out concluded there was little evidence of risk associated with saturated fats and coronary heart disease. This study was significant because of its sheer size, comprising 72 academic studies that involved 600,000 people being evaluated.

The study’s lead researcher, Dr Rajiv Chowdhury, commented, “These are interesting results that potentially stimulate new lines of scientific inquiry and encourage careful reappraisal of our current nutritional guidelines.”

People, for the most part, are doing what they can to be healthier, and governments, led by science, are generally doing what they can to support them. The food ingredients industry also needs to continue its work in advancing the ingredients it uses, as well as the recipes it follows.

Many brand-owners have worked to increase their portfolios of healthier offerings, particularly where sugars, salts, and saturated fats are concerned. Overall, the industry must work on spreading its healthoriented messages out to as wide an audience as possible, in order to ensure that consumers are making better-informed decisions, in regard to their well-being and nutrition.

Many millennials closely monitor what they eat and may be the most likely to be influenced by Instagram, vloggers and other forms of social media.
In a world where convenience is key, a lot of people may be dissuaded from eating healthier foods because they think they are too much hassle.
Having a balanced, healthy lifestyle requires people to do more than having the best intentions to sign up for a gym membership. However, It’s no longer as simple as doing regular, varied exercise and eating a balanced diet. There’s a lot of misleading, and sometimes dangerous, advice to go through.

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