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More people get the message about nutrition, exercise trends

November 6, 2008 |  2:45 pm

Those copious messages about maintaining healthy lifestyles must be sinking in, because Americans are getting a little savvier about eating right and exercising.

MarketSo says the latest public opinion survey from the American Dietetic Assn., "Nutrition and You: Trends 2008." The nationwide study asked 783 men and women their attitudes on healthful eating, the importance of diet and exercise, and even delved into reasons why people don’t do more to get healthy.

When asked about overall attitudes on maintaining a healthful diet and engaging in regular exercise, 43% said, "I’m already doing it," and engaging in good behaviors. In 2002, that number was 38%. People in the "I know I should" category — those who understand a healthy lifestyle is critical but haven’t done anything significant to achieve it — was 38%, up from 30% in 2002. And 19% of men and women put themselves in the "don’t bother me" category, not believing that diet and exercise are important. That’s down from 32% in 2002, suggesting a mind-set change.

Participants were asked to rank major and minor reasons for not wanting to do more to attain a balanced diet; 79% said they’re satisfied with the way they eat, and 73% said they don’t want to give up the foods they like. Only 41% said it was because they didn’t understand diet and nutrition guidelines. Those numbers haven’t changed drastically in eight years.

But people do seem to want more information on nutrition and healthful eating. In 2008, 40% said they were actively seeking more news, up from only 19% in 2000. And they’re making different choices: in the last five years, the number of people who increased their consumption of whole-grain foods rose 56%; vegetables, 50%; fruits, 48%; fish, 43%; and chicken, 42%. Those decreasing their intake of beef decreased 41%; dairy, 23%; and pork, 33%.

Messages about whole grains being better for you than refined white flour are definitely getting through — 94% of people ranked whole-grain bread healthier than white bread, while 6% said it was just as healthful. Six people (less than 1%) declared white bread healthier than whole grain.

"I definitely think the findings are encouraging," says Jeannie Gazzaniga-Moloo, an ADA spokeswoman and Roseville, Calif.-based registered dietitian. "Consumers are saying that diet, nutrition and physical activity are important to them, and we’ve seen a growth in that. We’ve also seen more people fall into the category of doing what they can to [maintain a healthy lifestyle]. But we know from rates of chronic diseases such as diabetes and heart disease that there is more that can be done."

Gazzaniga-Moloo is concerned that many people still believe they have to give up the foods they enjoy in order to be healthier. "There’s still a big misconception about that," she says. "You don’t have to give up those foods — you can look at portion size and frequency of eating them. They can be worked into a healthy, balanced diet."

But she’s cheered by the fact that people are adding more fruits and vegetables to their diets and adds, "It’s one step at a time. Even just adding a serving to two or three meals a day is a step in the right direction."

-- Jeannine Stein

Photo credit: Christopher Reynolds / L.A. Times