Consumers conflicted about weight management goals

by Erica Shaffer
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Most Americans want to lose weight, but a weak economy and denial may be distracting consumers from their weight loss goals. Two recently released studies examining consumer perceptions about health and nutrition, in addition to what consumers are actually doing, point to contradictions that may beguile any food manufacturer.

In its 2011 Food & Health Survey, the International Food Information Council Foundation (IFIC) found that in a down economy health is still important to two-thirds of the respondents in the survey. But the study also revealed that fewer people are concerned about their weight. Also, more Americans reported their activity level as sedentary.

Another striking finding is the apparent disconnect between respondents’ perception of their weight compared to their calculated Body Mass Index (B.M.I.). In the IFIC study, 38% of respondents classified their weight as normal; 50% said they were obese; 8% said they were underweight and 4% reported being underweight. At the end of the survey, respondents were asked to give their height and weight as part of collected demographic data.

But when researchers calculated respondents’ B.M.I., they found 35% were actually normal weight, 32% were overweight, 30% were obese and 3% were underweight. Furthermore, one in five respondents with a B.M.I. in the overweight range described their weight as “ideal” or “underweight.”

There is a noticeable gap between what consumers say and what they actually do when it comes to weight management, and this holds true for a number of food and health behaviors, said Wendy Reinhardt Kapsak, senior director of health and nutrition for IFIC.

“Why is that? There’s a whole host of reasons,” she said. “One of these things is do people even perceive that they have a weight issue? Some people who are overweight or obese may not be experiencing negative health effects from their weight, or at least they don’t think it’s the weight causing their health problems.

“Many consumers who are obese would prefer not to classify themselves like that,” she said.

Consumers would like to be engaging in more healthful behaviors, but something is holding them back, Ms. Kapsak said. She added that overall most consumers still want to lose weight.

Many are ‘weight conscious’

In April, the Calorie Control Council (C.C.C.) in Atlanta released results of a national survey that showed more than 100 million American adults are “weight conscious.” Fifty-four per cent of those surveyed said they wanted to lose weight, and another 28% said were trying to control or maintain their weight.

“People are now hearing what health authorities have been saying for years — Americans are too heavy,” said James Hill, executive director of the University of Colorado Anschutz Health & Wellness Center. “Although America has a serious weight problem, the good news is that more and more people are trying to address it.”

Among weight loss methods cited in the C.C.C. survey, cutting back on foods high in sugar was mentioned most often. Other popular methods of weight control by those trying to lose weight include eating smaller portion sizes and consuming low-calorie and sugar-free foods and beverages.

Nearly two-thirds of Americans trying to lose weight said they perform moderate exercise for 45 minutes at least three times per week, according to the C.C.C. At the other end of the scale, dieters do realize that short-term approaches will not result in lasting success — only 17% skip meals to diet, 13% said they use diet pills, and 8% follow restrictive weight loss diets.

The C.C.C. study also found that consumers were frustrated by a lack of progress. Not getting enough exercise was the leading obstacle to consumers reaching their weight loss goals (69%). Sixty-two per cent said slowing metabolism was an obstacle, while 52% blamed too much snacking.

One barrier to successful weight loss or weight management might be acknowledging a weight problem, and food manufacturers most likely can’t help. The “ah-ha moment” comes for some people when a physician intervenes or when a child has an issue with weight.

“It seems like these big events are when people do something to make a change,” Ms. Kapsak of IFIC said. “But it takes one of those big differences sometimes to actually get people to take action. That is one area that isn’t up to (food manufacturers).

“But that’s something where partnering with physicians and others is good to understand their perspective and how they talk about these issues with their patients.”

Ms. Kapsak said that for companies developing products that are marketed to people trying to lose or manage their weight, engaging with caregivers who discuss weight issues with their clients on a regular basis is a good idea.

“It’s tough to change consumer perception about their weight, and it’s always a challenge to consider motivating consumers to apply more healthful behaviors,” she said. “But partnering with the people who really come into contact one-on-one with consumers who are wanting to lose weight is a step industry could take.”

Another factor hindering consumers’ weight management ambitions is a weak economy and the rising price of food.

The IFIC study found that compared to previous years fewer people were making dietary changes to reach their weight loss goals and fewer people said they were trying to either lose or maintain their weight.

“Perhaps consumers are so bombarded with so much else going on related to survival needs that they’re not focused on this as maybe they once were,” Ms. Kapsak said.

She said that while taste and price always have been leading factors in consumers’ purchasing decisions, price is having a bigger impact on consumers’ purchasing decisions, and food manufacturers have a significant role to play on this front.

“Most consumers are not willing to pay a price premium, particularly in this (economic) environment, for a health benefit,” Ms. Kapsak said. “Consumers will be shopping for the best deal, and the challenge that faces the industry is keeping consumers at the table where both healthful foods are served at reasonable prices.”

Consistency matters

Consumers often complain about receiving mixed messages regarding health and wellness issues despite government and private sector campaigns to promote healthy lifestyle changes.

Ninety-five per cent of consumers could not identify a health initiative beyond the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Dietary Guidelines or MyPyramid, according to the IFIC study.

Consumers also remain confused about calories. The IFIC survey revealed that almost half of consumers don’t know how many calories they burn in a day and only 9% may accurately estimate how many calories they consume. This is significant because consumers will be seeing more calorie information on restaurant menus and vending machines, Ms. Kapsak said.

“We want people to move from calorie confusion to calorie confidence or calorie consciousness,” Ms. Kapsak said. “That includes government initiatives as well as corporate partnerships and health professionals.

“All sectors play a role in calories and consumers’ weight. A challenge in communicating in this area is communicating a similar or somewhat consistent message.”

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