Rising Obesity Rates and Nutrition Labels

Some disheartening information from the Center for Disease Control (CDC): Obesity, despite  growing awareness to nutrition and healthy living, is still on the rise. Various agencies pin the numbers between 27%-33% of the population, depending on how the measurement was taken. All agree that the numbers are rising.

Which begs the question, why?

Why are people still eating poorly, despite knowing about the consequences.

There are probably many reasons, but one of them could be the inability to translate awareness to action.

Think of your last visit to the supermarket. How do you know if you chose healthy food? Did you read the nutrition facts and ingredient list for products you were contemplating? Did you understand the information provided? Not very easy to comprehend, is it?

A study published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, “Food Label Use and Its Relation to Dietary Intake among U.S. Adults“, looks at the use of nutrition labeling by consumers when shopping at the supermarket. Using a nationally representative sample of US adults, the researchers found that:

  • More than 6 out 10 of participants reported using the Nutrition Facts panel,
  • Half looked at the list of ingredients,
  • 4.5 out of 10 looked at serving size, and
  • 4 out of 10 reviewed health claims at least sometimes when deciding to purchase a food product.

The scientists found a correlation between label usage and healthier food choices and consumption. Assuming healthier food  leads to lower weight (portion size is also important), we can postulate that getting more people to use nutrition labels will help lower obesity.

But nutrition labels are not “user-friendly” enough. In many cases, health claims on the front of package obfuscate the less glamorous ingredients and nutrients in a product. If people could more readily understand what they were really getting, perhaps their choices would improve.

There are many possible changes in nutrition labeling that could help people make better choices – serving sizes that are closer to what people actually consume, added sugar vs sugar naturally present, actual percentage of each ingredient, stricter regulations regarding health claims, and more.

Unfortunately, the food industry is not interested in these changes, and with a strong lobby will fight legislation to change the existing label.

What to do at the supermarket:

Educate yourself about nutrition labels so that you can make better choices. Ignore health claims and other marketing messages on the front of package and head straight to the nutrient facts and ingredient lists. And give us a shout if you need help…

  • http://foodfunfabulous.blogspot.com Christina

    I think most people know they should be looking at the Nutrition Facts and Ingredients list but they don’t want to take the time to do it or learn how to interpret it. It’s sad but I think it’s pretty evident by now that American’s want immediate gratification. I know that you’ve written about NuVal in the past. I’ve been interning with them for the summer and I think it can really help people. People want quick and easy to read and NuVal gives them that. But all I know for certain is I can’t wait to finish school and get out there to help fight this problem. And of course that I love this blog :)

  • http://martasmeanderings.blogspot.com Marta

    I think that a lot of people have no idea how to use the information on the labels to create healthy alternatives to the foods that they are eating now. When you couple the fact that it’s cheaper to eat bad food with the present economy you have another issue. It’s hard to relearn what you’re used to doing in the kitchen.

  • http://www.awakenedwellness.com Rachel Assuncao

    Perhaps the simplest solution is to choose foods that don’t require a nutrition label? If you cook whole foods like fruit, vegetables, whole grains, legumes and raw cuts of meat and poultry at home in a healthy way, it’s pretty much impossible to overdue it unless you have bigger issues to deal with. The reason is pretty simple – you’d never add all that extra sugar, salt or fat to your meal. You’d also never sprinkle it with MSG, artificial colorings or the myriad of other products you’d never have in your home kitchen. Getting rid of all of that junk will help the pounds to melt away, or better yet not pack them on in the first place.

  • Mendy Heaps

    We are really very lucky to have the food labels to help us make good decisions. As you know, they haven’t always been there. At least now, if we take the time, we can see if what the package says on the front is really true!
    When I taught a nutrition unit with my 7th graders, I would always do a lesson on how to read food labels. For serving size, I would always do a demonstration using some kind of cereal. Cereal is great because the serving size on the box is always 1/2 or 3/4 of a cup, and hardly anyone eats this amount in a bowl for breakfast – especially kids! It is a real eye opener for them. After this lesson, there is usually no stopping them. They start reading all the labels they can because they love to find a product they think is trying to be misleading. Parents have told me their kids showed them how to read labels and of course the kids like this too. It’s fun to know something your parents don’t!

  • lisa

    Get a copy of Food Rules. Shop at the edges of the supermarket.

  • http://www.theomep.com Wet Wolf

    The culprit for this is simple. Counting kcals.

    The #1 thing people read off the label is the number of calories!

    The problem is that when you count kcals off the label it takes food out of the equation.

    In the eyes of a kcal counter 300 kcals of ice cream is better than 350 kcals of waild salmon with salad and avocado.

    Bottom line: When people count kcals they focus on the energy value of food rather than the nutrient quality of the food.

  • Corey

    @Wet Wolf
    Excellent point, bravo.

  • Yvette

    I’m almost 50 and I weigh about the same as I did in high school. So, it’s pretty basic. Don’t buy food with labels. What does that mean? Fruit, vegetables, lean meats. If better than 80 percent of Americans’ diet fell into this camp, then we wouldn’t be having this discussion. Twenty percent of the time have some fun. And, then exercise at least 6 days a week or at least 45 minutes.

  • http://www.livingitupcornfree.com kc

    Amen. Some people use the “rule of 5″, buying products with 5 ingredients or less, but I try to find a way to avoid buying anything that has a label at all. I also try to avoid buying anything that has an advertising campaign.