Most Americans eat too much and exercise too little, which has translated into a national obesity epidemic with serious public health ramifications and a broad array of challenges for the food and beverage industry. However, as Miriam Nelson, Director of the John Hancock Research Center on Physical Activity, Nutrition, and Obesity Prevention at Tufts University, explained at IFT’s annual Wellness Conference last month, industry initiatives seem to be having a positive impact on consumers.
“I think we’re really at a tipping point, a real inflection point with changing culture and values around food, nutrition, and physical activity,” said Nelson. Two new studies suggest the public health picture may be brightening a bit. “I think we’re actually making some really good headway,” Nelson said, citing findings from a just-released National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) that tracked caloric intake among youths ages 2–19 between 1999 and 2010. According to the NHANES data, boys’ caloric intake decreased by 158 calories/day over the period, and girls consumed 76 fewer calories per day on average.
Nelson also pointed to encouraging findings from a new Hudson Institute study that compared food servings, customer traffic, and sales in 21 restaurant chains in 2006 and 2011. By all three metrics, those chains that had increased their menus of lower-calorie servings performed better than those that had decreased lower-calorie servings. The findings are not definitive, but “it does look as if the restaurants that are offering more lower-calorie options are actually doing better,” said Nelson.
Nelson said she was further heartened by steps she’s seen the food industry take to develop more healthful product portfolios and to work in partnership with public sector health advocacy organizations. “If we all work together—and we understand each other’s language—then we can make a difference,” said Nelson.