What we want from food: Energy, muscle strength and better health

What are we eating?

It's a deceptively simple question, asked millions of times every day. But think of the myriad factors that go into answering it – from cost to convenience to climate change – and it's no wonder we spend so much time thinking about the food we eat.

And then we're not even talking about breakfast, lunch or snacks.

A lot depends on Americans' food choices, including: trillions of dollars in spending and our collective risk of developing diabetes whole range of chronic diseases. That's why the International Food Information Council performs a annual survey on nutrition and health.

“It's about understanding the consumer mindset,” he says Kris Sollida registered dietitian and senior director of nutrition communications for the industry-funded nonprofit.

For almost two decades IFIC surveystaste is consistently ranked as the most important factor in food purchasing decisions, followed by price, health, convenience and environmental sustainability.

In the 2024 survey — which was answered by 3,000 Americans in March — about 30% of respondents said an item's durability mattered a lot when making purchasing decisions about what to eat and drink.

That may not seem like much, considering that scientists are already looking for ways to feed the nearly ten billion people expected to live on the planet by 2050, while reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

But for Sollid, the fact that 30% of respondents gave sustainability a score of 4 or 5 on a five-point scale is a strong achievement.

“Of course I would like to see that number higher, there's no doubt about that,” he said.

Here's a look at the state of the American diet, based on data from IFIC's new findings.

What do we think about when we decide what to eat?

To start with, we are looking for something that gives us energy or helps combat fatigue. But health considerations are also paramount.

What types of food do we choose?

Protein is the most popular nutrient during the day. 20% of respondents said they had eaten a high-protein diet in the past year, up from just 4% five years earlier. But it is by no means the only thing we want in our food.

At the same time, Americans are trying to cut back on ingredients that are bad for us.

For example, 50% of respondents said they tried to limit or avoid sodium or salt. Too much salt can cause your blood pressure to rise, and so can high blood pressure (also known as hypertension). a risk factor for serious health problems such as heart disease and stroke.

Additionally, 44% of respondents said they tried to limit or avoid it saturated fat. This is the type of fat that can cause LDL cholesterol – the bad kind – that builds up in your arteries, which it does increases the risk of heart disease and stroke.

But public enemy No. 1 is sugar.

What's so bad about sugar?

Our body needs some sugar for energy. But if we consume too much of it at once – which is easy to do when giving up soft drinks, breakfast cereals and all kinds of ultra-processed foods – they are stored like fat, what it can lead to obesity, diabetes and heart disease, amid other issues.

Two-thirds of those who took the IFIC survey said they tried to limit their sugar intake, and 11% said they tried to avoid it completely. Their main targets were adding sugars to packaged foods and drinks, although some also cut back on the natural sugars in foods such as fruit and regular dairy products.

The reasons motivating this withdrawal from sugar were a combination of current and future health concerns.

What other concerns play a role in our food choices?

We don't just think about ourselves when we decide what to eat. For many people, concerns about the way our food is produced are important when deciding whether to purchase a particular food or drink.

That concern extends to animals, to the people involved in all aspects of putting food on our plates – from farmers to factory workers to grocery store or restaurant staff – and to the planet itself.

How do we measure whether a food is made with the environment in mind?

The good news is that more than 70% of survey participants consider this important. The bad news is that there's no easy way to tell.

“There is no real definition of what makes a food environmentally sustainable,” Sollid said. “There isn't one thing someone can look at on a food package to tell them whether or not this choice is better than that one.”

Instead, environmentally conscious consumers use the following cues:

Will people pay more for an environmentally friendly product?

Producing food and drinks in a sustainable manner often entails additional costs. So IFIC posed this hypothetical scenario:

Imagine going to the store to purchase a specific item and finding three options. One costs $3 and has an icon indicating it is “not very environmentally friendly.” Another costs $5 and is labeled as “somewhat environmentally friendly.” The third costs $7 and is “very environmentally friendly.”

Which would you choose?

What is the relationship between food and stress?

It goes both ways, the study found: stress affects the food we choose, and the food we choose can cause stress.

It's a topic IFIC started asking about after the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, which caused both economic and food insecurity.

“COVID has exposed a lot of anxiety or potential sources of stress that a lot of people were dealing with,” Sollid said.

Four years later, almost two-thirds of respondents are experiencing a significant amount of stress, compared to 60% in 2023.

What are we so concerned about?

Money and health problems remain the biggest sources of stress among those who said they were “very” or “somewhat” stressed. Food choices weigh on the minds of nearly 1 in 4 people in this category.

Do we eat our feelings?

Some of us are. Nearly two-thirds of people said their mental and emotional well-being had a significant or moderate impact on their diet.

Of those who were at least somewhat stressed, about half said their food and drink choices suffered. However, a small number responded to stress by seeking out healthier options.

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