Why Do We Continue To Eat Unhealthfully?

The Lempert Report
September 21, 2016

75 Percent of Americans Say They Eat Healthy — Despite Evidence To The Contrary

There are many reasons debated by scientists, dietitians, doctors even behavioral experts, all who offer ways – sometimes a little too complicated to actually change our ways – it is a serious issue as 36 percent of adults in the US are obese. 

NPR and Truven Health Analytics conducted a poll of 3,000 adults in May and the results point to a possible solution. When they asked: How healthy would you consider your eating habits to be? About 75 percent of respondents ranked their diets as good, very good or excellent. WHAT? 

This survey underscores a few points. #1 – perhaps we just don’t know what “healthy eating” is. #2 – we are consciously ignoring reality or #3 – we just lie on surveys. 

NPR interviewed three experts that study eating habits and here is what they had to say:

Nutrition scholar Marion Nestle at New York University says portion size — just eating too much — is an issue. "I'd vote for that as a major cause of obesity." 

David Just, a behavioral economist who studies food psychology at Cornell University said:

"Some of the problem is that individuals pay more attention to getting good things in their diet than they do to limiting overall intake. It is hard to monitor overall consumption.” 

"We eat two more large snacks a day [compared to] 25 years ago," says Barry Popkin, a professor of nutrition at the University of North Carolina. His research points to the trend of kids eating every few hours throughout the day. "The industry has people thinking that many of their items are healthy," Popkin says, pointing to sugar-filled granola bars as an example. 

Some feel that better food labels is the answer. 

According to a recent study of 1,500 consumers by Label Insight, 75% of consumers do not trust the accuracy of food labels. Additionally, a majority of consumers are often confused about the ingredients in the foods they purchase.

•81% of consumers have consumed a packaged product that contained an ingredient they didn’t recognize at some point in the past month

•38% of consumers are concerned about eating products that contain information on the label they don’t recognize

•35% of consumers reported being confused by what food packaging labels are actually saying 

In Chile, where the obesity level is double that of the US – 67% of people 15 and older, Chile's Ministerio de Salud (MINSAL, Ministry of Health) developed a label to help consumers make quick choices at the supermarket - octagonal black labels, printed with the words "alto en" (high in), plus key nutritional factors for packaged foods that exceed, per 100 grams: 275 calories, 400 milligrams of sodium, 10 grams of sugar or 4 grams of saturated fats, which started appearing on packages in June. Black-labeled food cannot be advertised to children under 14 or include toys, and they also may not be sold in or near schools. 

A little too severe you might think? Not really. Lorena Rodriguez, head of the Department of Food and Nutrition, says Chile is the world's largest per-capita consumer of sugary drinks, at 188 calories per person per day, ahead of Mexico and the United States, which clock in at 157 and 158 calories, respectively. For ten years Chile followed the standards for labeling set by a standard set by the World Health Organization and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, which are similar to those found on packages here in the US, and found most people ignored them or found them confusing or hard to read. She says "only 30 percent of people read the labels, and of those, maybe 30 percent really understand them.

It takes less than a second to decide to buy something, the labels had to be something you could see in that short period of time." Perhaps something we should learn.