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American Adults Making Healthier Choices at Mealtime

American adults are eating better, making better use of available nutrition information, and consuming fewer calories coming from fat and saturated fat, consuming less cholesterol and eating more fiber, according to a report released in January from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service.

“The Obama Administration is working hard to empower the American public to make smart choices every day at school, at home and in their communities,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. “We have made significant progress, but our work is not done. We will continue to invest in critical programs that expand the availability of healthy, safe, affordable food for all Americans.”

The researchers found that use of nutrition information, including the Nutrition Facts Panel found on most food packages, increased in recent years. Forty-two percent of working age adults and 57 percent of older adults reported using the Nutrition Facts Panel most or all of the time when making food choices. When asked about nutrition information in restaurants, 76 percent of working-age adults reported that they would use the information if it were available.

Reduced consumption of food away from home (such as food from restaurants and fast food) accounted for 20 percent of the improvements in diet quality. A recent study found that during the recession of 2007-2009, U.S. household overall food expenditures declined approximately 5 percent, mostly due to a 12.9 percent decline in spending on food away from home. Calories consumed through food away from home dropped by 127 calories per day, and the average person ate three fewer meals and 1.5 fewer snacks per month away from home. Eating at home more often was also associated with more frequent family meals.

The report also indicates changing attitudes toward food and nutrition. Compared with 2007, the percentage of working-age adults who believed they have the ability to change their body weight increased by three percentage points in 2010. During the same time period, the report shows there was little change in the importance that price played when making choices at the grocery store, but working-age adults placed increased importance on nutrition when choosing items to purchase.

“When individuals believe that their actions directly affect their body weight, they might be more inclined to make healthier food choices,” said study author Jessica Todd, Ph.D., of the Economic Research Service.

The researcher used individual dietary intake data for working-age adults from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), which collects detailed individual and household information on a wide range of health-related topics through questionnaires, physical exams and lab work, in two-year segments. The survey is designed to be nationally representative, with a sample composed of 9,839 individuals. Overall, daily caloric intake declined by 78 calories per day between 2005 and 2010. There were overall declines in calories from total fat (3.3 percent), saturated fat (5.9 percent), and intake of cholesterol (7.9 percent). Overall fiber intake increased by 1.2 grams per day (7.5 percent).

This research was conducted by the Economic Research Service, which is a primary source of economic information and research at USDA.

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