“Overall, older Americans feel good about their health and while the same is generally true for low income older Americans as well, there does exist a significant health disparity between the groups,” according to a report released April 26 by the International Food Information Council Foundation based on a survey of 1,000 Americans 50 years and older with annual household incomes under $35,000 that it conducted with the AARP Foundation.
“In fact, while nearly 60% of older Americans rate their health as 8, 9 or 10 [on a scale of 1-10], the same is true of only 38% of those with low income,” the report explains. It adds: “Low income consumers also lag behind the average in terms of the healthfulness of their diet, how much physical activity they get, and how much energy they feel they have to do the things they want to do.”
This disparity can be attributed in part to half of low-income respondents citing difficulty eating a healthy diet, which is linked to their physical activity and energy levels, according to the report.
Cost is the most significant barrier to a healthy diet, as cited by 57% of low-income Americans older than 50 compared to 44% of the general American population older than 50, according to the study. It also found 16% of low-income Americans reported accessibility as a barrier to health eating, along with 16% who reported physical ability and 12% who listed knowledge.
Low-income Americans want to eat better
Despite these barriers and lower levels of perceived health, energy, healthy diets and physical activity, “the data also reveals an opportunity,” Alex Lewin-Zwerdling, vice president of research & partnerships at IFIC, told FoodNavigator-USA.
She explained: “Almost 90% of the low-income 50+ population believes either strongly or somewhat that it’s never too late to make changes to eating and lifestyle habits, with nearly the same percentage believing that eating healthy is important to maintaining health as one ages.”
In addition, she notes that 80% of lower income, older Americans report making at least some effort to eat the right amount of fruit, vegetables and protein and limit consumption of salt, added sugar and saturated fats.
Manufacturers can help fill education gap
These efforts, however, are stymied partially by low-income respondents knowing less about “how to translate their diets into their desired outcomes,” according to the report. It notes that 36% of low-income respondents cannot name a food or nutrient to avoid to improve their health, compared to 24% of those with higher incomes. In addition, 28% cannot name a food or nutrient that would help them achieve their health goals, compared to 19% of those with higher incomes.
Lewin-Zwerdling says this is where manufacturers of better-for-you and wellness-oriented products can help.
“There is an enormous opportunity to improve the diets of Americans over 50. These consumers value health, and they are motivated to eat well. But it’s important to understand why Americans over 50 are motivated,” and what marketing messages they are most receptive to in order for companies to maximize their outreach efforts, Lewin-Zwerdling said.
Base marketing on consumers’ motivations for healthy eating
She explained Americans older than 50 are motivated to eat well not so much because they are worried about weight management, but more out of concern about preventing future health conditions and protecting long-term health.
As such, she said, they tend to be interested in cardiovascular health, brain function and muscle health and mobility. When considering lower-income adults specifically, they also expressed a higher interest in emotional and mental health than those with higher incomes (72% vs 64%). Maintaining a healthy appetite also was a higher concern for low-income Americans over 50.
“When nutrition education initiatives are developed, or products marketed to this demographic, it’s important to remember what motivates older adults to strive for a healthy diet,” Lewin-Zwerdling said.
She also recommended initiatives and marketing may be more successful if they are framed “not just around specific health issues, but also in terms that resonate with Americans over 50. This survey shows that low-income Americans over 50 prefer fact-based messaging (vs quality of life or accessibility messaging) as a motivation to eat healthier.”
In addition, messages about “accessibility” that emphasized the ease or affordability of healthy eating was the least motivational for low-income Americans over 50 with only 44% saying they prefer this type of marketing, according to the survey.