Opinion

Experts beginning to see changes in eating patterns of Americans | Gustafson

More Americans cut back on calories, choose healthier foods, cook meals at home and eat out less often than they used to, according to a recent survey conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

On average, adults are consuming 118 fewer calories per day than they did a decade ago. While the reasons for the decline in consumption are not altogether clear, experts say there may be multiple factors at play, including greater awareness of diet-related health problems, the economic downturn, and also modifications made by food manufacturers and restaurant operators.

They warn, however, that the latest findings are not to be interpreted as a turning of the tide, meaning that we are probably not seeing the end of the current obesity crisis just yet. Over one-third of Americans are still diagnosed as obese, and those numbers haven't noticeably changed.

"These are not huge shifts, but they are positive ones," said Dr. Kelly Brownell, dean of Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University, who is best known for his work as director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University, to the Wall Street Journal in response to the study release.

In any case, the reduction in calorie intake, even as minuscule as it is, may already have led to dietary improvements and overall diet quality for many Americans, said Dr. Jessica E. Todd, an agricultural economist at the USDA and author of the study report. Especially the fact that home-cooked family meals are on the rise again is a welcome step in the right direction.

Critics of the study, however, dispute these conclusions as overly optimistic and rather see the economic decline large parts of the population have gone through in recent years as the real reason for the changing behavior of consumers, including with regards to food consumption.

"The good news is we're getting healthier, the bad news is, we're poorer, said Harry Balzer, an analyst with the NPD Group, a market research firm.

Others joining the movement

Food companies and restaurants may also have contributed by making their products leaner. A studysponsored by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation found that a number of leading food and beverage companies have substantially reduced calorie content in their manufacturing processes. It is unclear, however, to what extend consumers have directly benefitted from these modifications.

Cutting out a few calories here and there may be helpful, but it is not enough when it comes to weight loss, cautioned Dr. Marion Nestle, professor for nutrition and food studies at New York University (NYU). For most people, to lose weight requires at least a deficit of 350 calories per day.

We also have to be realistic about what the average person can accomplish when navigating a food environment that is not always conducive to nutritional health.

"From a consumer perspective, we need to live in reality," said Dr. Joy Dubost, a dietitian and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND) who just attended a meeting of the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC), which is tasked with giving recommendations for a coming update of the government's Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

"We can debate the science and look at the evidence, but we also need to spend some time in the shoes of consumers and think about what's affordable and practical," she said.

In an official statement to the DGAC, the Academy has urged committee members to recognize the "need for safe, sustainable and (...) accessible food for the health of all Americans," and to be mindful of the experience of "food insecurity and health inequity."

Timi Gustafson R.D. is a registered dietitian, newspaper columnist, blogger and author of the book "The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun"®, which is available on her blog and at amazon.com. For more articles on nutrition, health and lifestyle, visit her blog, "Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D." (www.timigustafson.com). You can follow Timi on Twitter, on Facebook,Google+ and on Pinterest.

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