Healthier Eating Takes Hold; Economy Makes It More Challenging

eating breakfast outThe evidence that Americans are more nutrition-conscious, and in fact eating more healthily than in the past, continues to grow.

For example, the percentage of adults "on a diet" has declined by 10 percentage points since 1990, while the percentage saying that they're "eating healthier" has been on the rise, according to the latest analyses from The NPD Group's ongoing "National Eating Trends" tracking study.

"While dieting for both women and men remain huge markets, they are not growing markets," sums up NPD Group VP Harry Balzer. "Today, healthy eating is more a matter of addition than subtraction."

Other positive findings:

  • More than 70% of Americans report that they are consuming reduced-fat foods at least once during a two-week period, and over half are eating reduced-calorie, whole grain or fortified foods during that time frame. Other "better for you" foods being consumed more frequently include diet, light, reduced cholesterol, reduced-sodium, caffeine-free, sugar-free, fortified, organic, and low-carb offerings. In all, the average American now consumes at least two "better for you" products per day, the data shows.
  • More consumers are trying to add whole grains, dietary fiber, omega-3 fatty acids, antioxidants and probiotics to their fare. For example, today, 46% report incorporating more omega-3 fatty acids in their diets, compared to 36% in 2005, according to NPD's Dieting Monitor, which tracks top-of-mind dieting and nutrition-related issues.
  • Healthier nutrition seems to be paying off. Recent U.S. government studies confirm that obesity rates are leveling off, and most recently, childhood obesity rates are stabilizing, notes Balzer.



All good news. But as Balzer also acknowledges: "Eating healthier has always been more expensive." So will consumers continue to make healthier choices in the face of rising food and gas prices?

The signs point in that direction. A recent NPD Fast Check Survey on economic conditions found that adults who identify themselves as financially worse off compared to last year still said that eating healthily had the greatest impact on the food and beverages they buy for their households, although saving money ranked a close second.

While historical trends show that Americans have never let their food costs exceed their budgets, Balzer says that attitudes have changed sufficiently that people are more likely to forego unnecessary expenses and adapt their healthy food selections than shift to cheap but unhealthy options.

"Restaurant choices will be impacted first," he says. "People are still eating in restaurants, because they're not about to abandon the convenience factor. But they recognize that this is an inefficient way to feed their families on a per-calorie basis, compared to eating at home.

"So they're moving away from more expensive restaurants and toward quick-service options--and maybe switching from eating dinner out to eating breakfast out. As we know, fast-service chains are offering healthier selections, and growing numbers of consumers are buying these. The more people choose these, the more such options the restaurants will offer."

Healthy or unhealthy, any grocery item that's premium-priced is obviously going to be under pressure, Balzer adds, noting that smart shoppers may trade off buying something like premium ice cream in favor of putting the money toward healthier staples.

"While grain products are more expensive, they're still less expensive than meat," he points out. "So we may well start seeing people eating more grain-based, as opposed to meat-based, meals."

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