American adults are eating out less, using nutrition labels more, and are eating better at home, according to a new report from the US Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service.
Using individual dietary intake data for 9,839 working-age adults from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), USDA researchers found that between 2005 and 2010, overall daily caloric intake declined by 78 calories per day. Calories from total fat declined 3.3%, saturated fat 5.9%, and cholesterol 7.9%. Moreover, overall fiber intake increased by 1.2 grams per day (7.5%).
Use of nutrition information on food packages also increased, with 42% of working age adults and 57% of older adults reporting that they use the Nutrition Facts Panel most or all of the time when making food choices. More than three quarters (76%) also reported that they would use the information on restaurant menus if it were available.
“These are encouraging findings and some long needed movement in the right direction,” said USDA undersecretary for food, nutrition and consumer services Kevin Concannon, during a press call announcing the results. “The habits of most Americans fall short of dietary guidelines, but this research shows we are beginning to see progress, with more Americans prioritizing nutrition and paying attention to nutrition facts.”
Fewer meals eaten away from home
Calories eaten 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. The decline in eating out accounted for 20% of the improvements in diet quality. The report cited a recent study that found a 12.9% decline in spending on food away from home. Eating at home more often was also associated with more frequent family meals.
“Food prepared outside home comprises a significant share of expenditures and caloric intake for Americans,” said Jessica Todd, research economist at the USDA’s Economic Research Service. “Consumption of food away from home is linked to lower quality. We saw a decline in spending between 2006 and 2009 that could have led to improvements in quality, but the net effect can’t be determined from expenditure.”
Most of the improvements in diet quality were not because of the decline in eating out, she noted. “Improvements in the quality of food available and greater nutrition availability were also large factors.”
Sam Kass, executive director of Let’s Move! and White House senior policy advisory for nutrition policy, credited pre-emptive reformulation efforts by the private sector in helping effect change.
“In the study, improvement of the actual quality of food available contributed substantially to the changes we’re seeing,” he said. “There have been huge reformulation efforts—everyone from Walmart to leading food and beverage companies is making changes to the amount of sodium, sugar and calories in the products they sell. Put those things together, and we start to have measurable results.”
Concannon also attributed the changes to improved consumer access to healthy choices across income categories. The federal low-income food and nutrition program Women, Infants and Children was largely credited with the recent shift to a decline in obesity rates in 19 states, according to the CDC. In addition, the Supplemental Nutrition Access Program (SNAP) is now accepted at more than 4,000 farmers’ markets nationwide, and more than 3 million Americans are using Supertracker, the free online meal and physical activity planning tool.
Consumers feel more empowered to change their health
The report also indicates changing attitudes toward food and nutrition. The percentage of working-age adults who believed they have the ability to change their body weight increased by three percentage points from 2007 to 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.
That’s what, as Kass noted, updating packaged food nutrition panels is crucial, as information is core to arming consumers to make the right choices.
“The FDA is close to realizing a proposal to update the nutrition facts panel for first time since 1970s,” he said. “Serving sizes haven’t been updated since the 70s, and we need to make labels more effective at delivering easy to read information. An informed consumer is the only way to see broad change.”