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Survey: Americans Finally Learning Lesson On Diet, Exercise

By L. K. Regan

The American Dietetic Association has released its seventh nationwide consumer opinion survey, tracking Americans' attitudes, beliefs, and practices regarding food. The results are encouraging for those concerned with the nation's nutritional health: More Americans say that they are making an effort to eat healthy and get sufficient exercise.

The ADA surveyed nearly 800 respondents by phone, and used those interviews to divide people into three groups:

  1. I'm Already Doing It (43 percent): Those who feel that maintaining a healthy diet and regular exercise are very important; who are concerned about diet, nutrition, and overall fitness; and who feel they are doing all they can to eat a healthy diet.
  2. I Know I Should (38 percent): Those who feel that maintaining a healthy diet and regular exercise are very important, but may not have taken significant actions to do all they can to eat a healthy diet.
  3. Don't Bother Me (19 percent): People who do not feel diet and exercise are very important to them and are the least concerned with their overall nutrition and fitness.
These percentages represent an improvement over the 2002 survey, when the "I'm already doing it" group represented only 38 percent of the population, with the "Don't Bother Me" group at 32 percent. Even if people have not made major changes in their lifestyle, it's evident that public education campaigns about the importance of diet and exercise are at least being heard. The ADA interprets, in fact, that, "The percentage of people in the 'Don't Bother Me' category has dropped substantially over the years, especially from 2002 to 2008. The 'I Know I Should' percentage has stayed relatively constant, and in fact has returned to its 1991 level. The 'I'm Already Doing It' group has increased steadily and, in each survey, appears to represent movement away from 'Don't Bother Me.'" Registered dietitian and ADA spokesperson Jeannie Gazzanig-Moloo said, "This is the first year the 'Don't Bother Me' group has represented less than one-third of the population. These trends tell us people are paying more attention to their nutritional and physical activity needs and are increasingly doing what they need to do to eat right and be healthy."

The survey also shows major differences by age, gender, and education level in terms of Americans' attentiveness to diet and exercise. Women were far more likely than men to say that both diet and exercise were very important to them. Seventy-three percent of women think diet and nutrition are a priority, compared to 55 percent of men; and 62 percent think exercise is important, compared to 58 percent of men. Young people (18 to 24 years old) were much less likely to be concerned about diet (lucky kids!), but all age groups found exercise to be very important (60 percent of 18 to 24 year-olds, and 56 percent of those 65 and older, for example). Finally, education and emphasis on nutrition were positively correlated, such that those with more education were more likely to think diet important. But for exercise the picture is more mixed; those with some high school and those with post-graduate education—so, the two ends of the spectrum—had very similar emphasis on exercise (62 and 63 percent, respectively, think exercise is "very important"), but that emphasis declined in the middle of the education scale, to 56 percent among those with some college education, but no degree.

When asked why they don't change their eating habits, most respondents to the survey gave two (potentially contradictory) answers: 79 percent said that they like themselves the way they are, while 73 percent don't want to give up the foods they like. The other most cited reasons were difficulty keeping track of diet habits (54 percent), lack of practical advice on how to eat right (52 percent), and lack of knowledge about nutrition guidelines (41 percent). These last three are discouraging, as they indicate a lack of education—but there were encouraging signs within the survey. Since 2000, the number of people who say they actively seek information about diet and exercise has increased from 19 percent to 40 percent, and the Internet has grown as a source for that information, coming in third now behind television and magazines.

Finally, the survey asked people about their eating habits, and changes they have made over the last five years. The largest percentages of people said they have increased their consumption of whole-grain foods (56 percent), fruits (50 percent) and vegetables (48 percent). The survey found people 65 and over were the least likely to have increased their consumption of any of these foods in the past five years, while adults between 18 and 34 were the most likely to have increased consumption, especially of whole-grain foods. And, the survey had one clear winner. As the ADA reports, "In the closest thing to a unanimous verdict in ADA's entire 2008 survey, 94 percent of respondents (731 out of 780 who answered the question) said they believe whole-grain bread is healthier that white bread—a belief that is backed up by research; 6 percent said they are equally healthy and just six people (four of whom were men) said white bread is healthier."

The trends are all in an upward direction, which shows the success of public health campaigns emphasizing the importance of diet and exercise for overall health. Still, there is further to go. "It's great to see these trends continue to head upward, but there is definitely still room for improvement in Americans' eating and physical activity habits," Gazzaniga-Moloo said.