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Plenty of Meat, Not Enough Plants: Americans Still Find It Tough to Eat Healthy

If there were ever a headline that summed up the eating preferences of Americans, this AdAge headline might be it: “Americans Are Obsessed with Eating Healthy – and With Twinkies.”

The healthy eating movement has been thriving in the U.S. food industry since the fitness craze of the 1980s, and it accelerated under the Obama administration as First Lady Michelle Obama picked nutrition as her cause. For eight years, she spearheaded new programs designed to encourage Americans – especially children – to make better food choices.

Yet, even as awareness of the obesity epidemic and its effects on health and health costs increase, many Americans still struggle to change their eating habits. And while the Trump administration has announced its intention to roll back some of the former First Lady’s initiatives, there are signs Americans are paying attention.  

In 1990, the US Congress passed the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act, which mandated nutrition labels on processed food. Through awareness programs such as Obama’s, Americans learned how to choose healthier food by reading labels. Today, more than half of Americans say they look at ingredients on packages when buying food, according to a new survey by ReportLinker. However, only one in four Americans say they pay attention to where their food comes from, while just 14% look for organic labels. Vegans and vegetarians are more likely to seek organic foods.

Criteria to which American people are mostly attentive to when buying food.

Fortunately, many Americans prefer to cook at home, which means nutrition education can go a long way in helping to change their eating habits. But it’s still an uphill battle. Despite the preference for home-cooking, almost a third of Americans say they eat fast food weekly, according to ReportLinker, while one in four eat it monthly. A small minority – 14% – say they avoid it altogether.

How often do American people eat fast food.

Another problem is that Americans overwhelmingly fall short of the government’s recommendations to eat at least five servings of vegetables and fruits daily. While buyers of organic food are more likely to achieve or exceed this goal, 84% of survey respondents overall say they eat fewer than four servings a day.

Number of portions of vegetables and fruits that American people eat daily.

Even though Americans are less likely to load up on the fruits and veggies, they are heavy consumers of poultry and red meat. Nearly half eat meat every day, and 43% say they consume it at least weekly, ReportLinker says, and most aren’t about to give up the practice. A majority say a vegetarian or vegan way of eating isn’t an attractive option for them. ReportLinker found that 70% said they weren’t interested in eating a vegetarian meal even once a week. Those mostly likely to say they’ll sit down to a vegetarian meal are those who say they never eat fast food.

Part of American people who try to have a vegetarian menu at least once a week.

This is true even as more celebrities have come out as vegetarian or vegan and launch their own health-oriented enterprises. Given the impact celebrities often have on their fans’ fashion or lifestyle choices, we might expect more Americans to follow their lead on healthy eating. Gwyneth Paltrow, who is both revered and criticized for her lifestyle, runs a popular blog called Goop. The website promotes healthy living and has a strong focus on veganism and vegetarianism. Even so, ReportLinker found that only 5% of survey respondents said they were vegan or vegetarian.

Types of food diet in the American population.

One explanation is that this is a relatively new trend, driven mostly by the young. In the US, more than half of vegans or vegetarians (54%) decided less than three years ago to change their eating habits. One in three say they’re in their first year as a vegan or vegetarian. For 69% of vegans and vegetarians, health is the prime reason for making such a radical lifestyle change, while 19% say they made the switch out of concerns for the environment.

More than half of those who switch to a vegan or vegetarian diet perceive it as just another way of eating, but vegans are more likely to think of it in larger terms. For one thing, eating a plant-only diet can benefit the planet by lowering greenhouse gases. ReportLinker found that 70% of vegans believe the practice is a completely new way of living, providing benefits to both the environment and their health.

While veganism and vegetarianism may be appealing to a few, ReportLinker discovered another emerging trend that could be much bigger: fasting or cleansing diets. Nearly one in four US respondents say they’ve tried this practice in the last two years, especially women and younger Millennials (aged 18-34). In addition, single individuals are more likely than married people to try a fast or cleanse.

Despite disagreements among physicians about the health benefits of fasting and cleansing diets, nearly half of respondents say they’re mainly motivated to improve their health. Weight loss is also an incentive for 38% of those who have tried fasting or cleansing, and women are more likely to try the practice than men. However, even among adherents, such practices are infrequent. Just as spring cleaning happens only once a year, two-thirds of fans say they fast or follow a cleanse diet once a year or less, while 19% say they follow such diets twice a year.

Part of American people that have tried a fasting or a cleansing diet.

To make up for missing nutrients, some Americans turn to food supplements such as protein shakes. While most often associated with fitness enthusiasts, they’re not broadly popular, ReportLinker found. Just one in four respondents say they consume them, and women are more likely to than men to use them.

Another way Americans seek to improve their health is through exercise. Yet, though the benefits of exercise are well-documented, surprisingly few people work out regularly. Just a third of respondents to the ReportLinker survey say they are daily and weekly sport players. Men are more likely to exercise, with 21% training daily and one and four working out weekly. Younger Millennials (aged 18 to 34) also tend to hit the trail or the gym, with more than a third saying they train daily. By contrast, 72% of women are more likely to say they don’t work out or play sports compared to men.

How often do American people train or play sports.

Ultimately, experts say it can take time to establish healthier eating and exercise habits. The US Dietary Guidelines recommends Americans focus on making small shifts in choices – such as selecting a salad rather than fries – to develop an overall healthy eating pattern. But motivation is crucial for success, and since most Americans are torn between a desire to eat healthy and a love of fast food, change may come more slowly than the government would like.

 

This survey conducted by ReportLinker reached 584 online respondents representative of the US population. Interviews were conducted on April, 18th 2017.