Parents can't count calories

by Editorial Staff
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WASHINGTON — Parents do not count calories and won’t, according to a new study conducted by the Dietary Guidelines Alliance. The group said parents, particularly in a weak economy, “have a lot on their minds,” leaving food and nutrition as secondary to more pressing concerns. On the other hand, the group said parents do have a good understanding of the benefits of physical activity.

The D.G.A. commissioned the study as part of its efforts to communicate positive and simple messages to help consumers achieve healthy lifestyles consistent with the government’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

The alliance was created by a diverse collection of food-related groups, including the American Dietetic Association, the Grocery Manufacturers Association, The Grain Foods Foundation, the National Dairy Council and the National Restaurant Association.

The study was aimed at helping the D.G.A. better understand exactly what parents know and what they don’t about food and health topics.

The study featured a focus group component with groups convened in three U.S. markets — Birmingham, Ala.; Baltimore and Oakland, Calif. A second component of the project was a quantitative study of parents to test messages developed on insights from the focus groups.

Among the sobering findings in the study was the state of knowledge possessed by parents related to issues of eating and health, the D.G.A. said.

“Parents know a lot less about some concepts than we might have anticipated,” the group said. Additionally, they said parents often fail to recognize the long-term health risks associated with overeating and a lack of exercise.

“Many consumers lack a basic understanding of the fundamentals of constructing a healthful diet, never mind some of the more sophisticated concepts, such as calories in and out,” the

D.G.A. said.

Another hurdle cited by the group was the stress many parents feel in their lives.

Impediments to healthful lifestyles included “grappling with unpredictable work schedules, working extremely long days at physically or intellectually demanding jobs, suffering through excessive commuting times and shuttling children to activities,” the D.G.A. said.

The researchers also expressed surprise by the lack of worry among parents about the risks posed to their health by excessive weight.

“Some truly think they are not overweight (a problem in and of itself), others downplayed the extent to which they were overweight and some seemed to have just accepted that they were overweight but not that they were putting themselves at serious risk,” the D.G.A. said.

A key finding emerging in all focus groups was the importance of family dynamics in decisions around food and physical activity.

“While parents want their children to eat healthfully, they also don’t want to be the ‘bad guy’ making them do so,” the alliance said.

Expanding on a lack of understanding among consumers, the researchers noted ignorance about the concept of calories was widespread. Among consumers with a “fairly good grasp” of the concept of calories, most do not believe they are important to track, the D.G.A. said.

“Most parents are not willing to pay attention to calories,” the researchers said.

On a more positive note, while most of the parents surveyed do not exercise regularly, their children generally do, the D.G.A. said.

Additionally, while their comprehension of the concept of calories is weak, most parents convey a basic understanding of calories in and calories out and are willing to make trade offs to maintain a balance, the D.G.A. said. For example, some consumers opt for a smaller dinner when they eat a big lunch or will choose lower-calorie choices at fast-food restaurants.

Monitoring portion size is not “top of mind” for most parents, who generally define a portion simply as “the amount dished out.” While many consumers identify fruits and vegetables as nutrient-rich foods, few can name one or two nutrient-rich examples from other food groups, the researchers said.

Looking at higher-calorie foods, most consumers expressed the view that indulgent choices “can play a role in a healthful diet,” but some acknowledged struggling to achieve the right balance.

“There is an emotional desire to eat foods that are comforting and indulgent,” the D.G.A. said.

Looking forward, the group said helping parents understand the importance of calories is a “crucial step that cannot be skipped.”

“It has to become easy to pay attention to calories,” the researchers said. “Messages about counting or monitoring calories will not likely be effective today. This may change as Americans become better educated on the importance of calories.”

Testing various messages to encourage parents to count calories, “Know your number” ranked highest, eclipsing alternatives such as “Calories count,” or “Get curious about calories.”

Most popular among messages related to physical activity was “Fun stuff counts as exercise!” while the message “Take charge of your weight” was seen by the researchers as best for encouraging energy balance.

The researchers said parents look to supermarkets first for finding information about healthy eating. FBN

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