Report says Americans are making healthier food choices

It’s a good news day for the battle against obesity in the United States.

The US Department of Agriculture released an extensive report Thursday detailing healthy improvements in American working-age adult eating habits from 2005 to 2010. Not only did American adults eat out less, but they also cooked more nutritious food at home.

According to the research, conducted by the Economic Research Service using national survey sample data, overall food spending declined five percent during the recession from 2006 to 2009. The report attributes this overall decrease to a 12.9 percent decline in spending on food away from home. That breaks down to an average of 127 less calories per day, three fewer meals per month, and 1.5 fewer snacks away from home.

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“In the recession, people weren’t eating out as much as they could in years past,” said Joan Salge Blake, a registered dietician and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “They had to start ratcheting down and eating more meals at home. Plus, when dining out they tend to consume more calories than when they dine at home.”

But the recession wasn’t the only factor contributing to better nutritional decisions. Less than 20 percent of the diet quality improvements can actually be attributed to an overall decrease in food bought away from home, which suggests that the overall quality of nutritional decisions is improving.

In a press call after the report’s release, study author Jessica Todd, Ph.D., an agricultural economist in the food division of the Economic Research Service, said that her research indicates the working-age American is also more aware today of the impact their food quality choices have on their nutrition and overall health. Todd also said that although her research attributes some of the decline in food spending away from home to the recession, she does not anticipate an improving economy to cause the positive trends to reverse.

The report found that working-age adults were more likely to rate their diets at a higher nutritional quality (excellent, very good, or good) from 2009 to 2010 versus 2007 to 2008.

“More nutrition information being available for consumers were probably large factors contributing to overall improvements in diet quality,” said Todd.

Her research was based on national surveys that broke down America’s eating habits based on categories such as unemployment, caloric intake, percentage of food bought away from home, as well as where the specific calories come from in our diets.

Working-age adults are consuming more fiber since 2005, while the amount of saturated fat and cholesterol in diets has declined. The report attributes higher fiber intake to higher food quality both inside and outside of the home.

“This study is another indication that there’s a major shift underway around how Americans are eating and improving the quality of food they’re providing to their families and communities,” said Sam Kass, Executive Director of Let’s Move! and White House Senior Policy Advisory for Nutrition Policy, also on the press call about the report. “They are ultimately better making choices and changing the quality of those choices. We could not be more excited abiout progress being made.”

Not only has eating out changed, but behavior in the grocery stores, according to the report, reflects an increased awareness of the impact our food choices have on healthy nutrition. Changes in consumer attitudes toward health and nutrition were analyzed using consumer behavior data collected by the National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys.

In grocery stores, working-age adults were more aware of nutrition while grocery shopping from 2009 to 2010. The report finds 42 percent of adults read the nutrition labels and food packaging “always” or “most of the time” from 2009 to 2010, versus 34 percent who did from 2007 to 2008.

“Information is a core foundation of how people are going to make their decisions,” said Kass. “The Nutrition Facts Panel is the most important place where consumers are getting their information.”

The findings were a result of a combination of factors, said Salge Blake, who also blogs about nutrition for “A lot of factors could be going on here to make those numbers decline, but the good news is they went in the right direction.”