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Study finds consumer appetite changing

One-third of Americans report to be dieting, including one in 10 who fast.

More than one in three U.S. consumers are following a specific diet or eating pattern, and they are increasingly averse to carbohydrates and sugar, according to the 13th annual "Food & Health Survey," released by the International Food Information Council (IFIC) Foundation.

Given a list of diets to choose from or the option to write in a response, 36% of Americans reported following a specific eating pattern or diet within the past year -- about two-and-a-half times the number (14%) of people following a specific diet in 2017, when it was an open-ended question on the survey.

The top eating pattern cited was intermittent fasting (10%). Diets considered at least somewhat restrictive of carbohydrates were well represented, including Paleo (7%), low carb (5%), Whole30 (5%), high protein (4%) and ketogenic/high fat (3%). Younger consumers ages 18-34 were more likely to follow a specific eating pattern or diet than those ages 35 and older.

More Americans than in previous years blame weight gain on carbs -- specifically sugars. While sugars continue to be the most cited cause of weight gain, at 33% of respondents, carbohydrates ranked second, at 25%, up from 20% in 2017. Both of those numbers were the highest since 2011. Fats (16%), protein (3%) and “all sources” (17%) lagged behind sugar and carbs when placing blame for weight gain.

Almost all consumers are interested in getting specific health benefits from food or nutrients. However, the top two desired health benefits in 2018 changed places from 2017: This year, 20% ranked cardiovascular health as their top desired benefit, followed by weight loss or weight management at 18% and energy at 13%. In 2017, those numbers were 16%, 32% and 14%, respectively.

Nonetheless, consumers don’t know, and remain confused about, how to achieve these desired outcomes: Only 38% are able to name a food they would seek out to help with their top health concern. Protein was most frequently identified (10%), followed by vegetables (7%), vitamins and minerals (5%) and fruits (4%).

“This dietary disconnect -- the inability to connect specific foods and nutrients to desired health outcomes -- illustrates the need for stronger, clearer, nutrition education based on the best available evidence,” Joseph Clayton, chief executive officer of the IFIC Foundation, said.

Eighty percent of consumers said there is a lot of conflicting information about what foods to eat or avoid -- a number similar to 2017. Of those people, 59% say the conflicting information makes them doubt their food choices, yet the data show a troubling disparity among ethnicities, with those who doubt their choices as a result of conflicting information rising to 78% for Hispanic consumers.

Dinner plates don’t match MyPlate

What American adults believe experts recommend about which foods should fill their dinner plates isn’t too far off from the actual guidance from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s MyPlate. When it comes to what people actually eat, however, the story is much different.

USDA’s “MyPlate” recommends that people fill about half of their plates with fruits and vegetables, with the rest of the plate divided up by grains (half of which should be whole grains) and protein and with dairy represented by a separate circle next to the plate. When consumers were asked which foods they believe experts recommend, they were on the mark with vegetables at 30% and fruits at 21%, while protein and grains made up the balance, at 29% and 20%, respectively.

What consumers really eat diverges from the recommendations, with protein leading the way at 38%, followed by vegetables at 29%, grains at 21% and fruits at 12%. About half (48%) said they include dairy often or always, while only 2% said they never include dairy products.

The results for the findings were derived from an online survey of 1,009 Americans ages 18-80 conducted March 12-26. Results were weighted to ensure that they are reflective of the American population, as seen in the 2017 "Current Population Survey," specifically weighted by age, education, gender, race/ethnicity and region. The survey was conducted by Greenwald & Associates using ResearchNow’s consumer panel.

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