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When the Calories Just Don't Add Up
New survey shows caloric information confuses Americans
Jeff Leach (zinjboss)     Print Article 
Published 2006-03-03 14:22 (KST)   
While Americans are concerned about their weight and frequently look for caloric information on food package labels, nearly nine out of 10 Americans are unable to accurately estimate the number of calories they should eat in an average day. This is one of the most dramatic findings from a national survey conducted by the International Food Information Council Foundation.

©2006 mushanga
The online survey, designed to develop a comprehensive picture of Americans' perceptions and behaviors regarding key health related issues including diet, physical activity, and weight, was conducted among 1,060 Americans age 18 or older.

When asked "how many calories a person your age, weight, and height should consume per day?" 43 percent of Americans would not venture a guess (answering "don't know" to the question). Of the 57 percent who did provide an estimate, 79 percent guessed wrong the number of calories they should consume, based on the USDA's formula from MyPyramid.gov, which was released in 2005 and bases calorie consumption estimates on factors such as age, gender, and exercise frequency. In total, this means that 88 percent, or nearly nine out of 10 Americans are mistaken about how many calories they should consume each day.

The survey also revealed Americans are confused about the extent to which the basic food components like dietary fat, carbohydrates, and protein can contribute to weight gain. Only 29 percent of Americans agreed with the correct statement, "calories in general are what cause weight gain (i.e., all calories are the same)." Of the remaining respondents, 26 percent said calories from fats are most likely to cause weight gain, 20 percent said carbohydrates, and only two percent said protein. Twenty-two percent admitted they were not sure.

What makes this confusion somewhat surprising is that among the vast majority of Americans (94 percent) who report ever looking at the Nutrition Facts Panel when deciding which foods and beverages to purchase, calorie information is the most frequently cited (67 percent).

But, when asked, unaided, what changes they are making to improve the overall healthfulness of their diet, only two percent said "eating fewer calories," and another 12 percent said "reducing amounts eaten at meals." Americans were much more likely to cite other actions such as "consuming less of a specific food or beverage" (21 percent) or "changing meal/snack patterns" (nine percent).

While this number jumps considerably when Americans are provided a list of specific behaviors, Americans continue to be more likely to say they are reducing the amount eaten at meals (57 percent) and changing meal/snack patterns (55 percent), than consuming fewer calories (42 percent).

"This indicates that, while Americans are aware of calories and the general advice that consuming fewer calories may improve overall health, reducing the number of calories consumed is not top of mind," said Susan T. Borra, President, International Food Information Council Foundation and past president of the American Dietetic Association. "What this survey tells us is that most American consumers are confused about how to use calorie information to make changes in their overall diet in order to improve their health in general or to better manage their weight."

"With so much attention focused on the health risks associated with overweight/obesity and advice from many health professionals focused on helping consumers achieve a better balance between energy consumption and expenditure, it will be interesting to see how consumer awareness and understanding of calorie information change over time," said Borra.

This new research is the initial finding of The IFIC Foundation Food & Health Survey, a tracking survey intended to provide ongoing information on consumer attitudes toward health, nutrition, and food. Additional findings on dietary fats, carbohydrates, and sugars will be released over the next few weeks. The International Food Information Council Foundation plans to replicate this research every 12-24 months.
Jeff Leach is an anthropologist who specializes in evolutionary trends in human nutrition and its application to modern health and well-being. He also writes a free weekly newsletter on nutrition and health, available on his Web site.
©2006 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Jeff Leach

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