According to the IFIC Foundation Food & Health Survey, consumers have been struggling with calories for a number of years. In 2011, this research revealed that only 9 percent of Americans could correctly estimate the number of calories they need in a day; the remainder estimated incorrectly or were unwilling to venture a guess. In addition, less than 50 percent of Americans believed that consuming more calories than burned (more in vs. out) leads to weight gain; an additional 25 percent were unsure of this relationship. The remainder cited specific sources of calories, such as fat, sugar, carbohydrate and protein, rather than total intake, as most likely to cause weight gain.
The Dietary Guidelines Alliance research provides insights into this calorie conundrum. Insights from this research revealed that many parents believe that what you eat is more important than the number of calories consumed. Most parents expressed frustration with having to count calories saying that it is too time consuming and complicated, especially when cooking from scratch. Most surprisingly, some consumers saw calorie consciousness as just the latest in a long series of diet fads and were wary about jumping on board.
Despite consumers’ calorie disconnect, a key recommendation from the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans reinforces the importance of balancing calories in our diet with physical activity to manage weight. The Alliance found the following were well understood by parents when asked what would motivate them to pay attention to the calories they consume; achieve calorie balance; be more physically active with their family; serve smaller portions; and serve lower-calorie, nutrient-rich foods more often.
- Know your number. Learning how many calories you should consume in a day is a critical first step in managing your weight.
- Calories count. Calories are like a budget – you can only eat so many in a day. Spend wisely by choosing lower-calorie, nutrient-rich foods most of the time to help manage your weight.
- Take charge of your weight. Balancing the calories you eat and drink with the calories you burn through physical activity puts you in control.
- Fun stuff counts as exercise! Get active with the family whether it’s soccer in the backyard, dancing to music or taking a walk in your neighborhood.
- Small steps = big changes. Serve smaller portions to help curb calories and keep your weight on the right track.
- Base your plate on nutrient-rich foods. Choose foods that offer beneficial nutrients and fewer calories, like fruits and vegetables, whole and enriched grains, lean meats, beans and nuts, and low-fat and fat-free dairy products.
- You are an important role model for your children. Show your family how to savor their favorite higher-calorie foods and beverages by enjoying smaller portions together.
These messages provide multiple approaches to helping consumers gain clarity on calories whether by paying attention to calories directly or serving smaller portions, etc. In this way, there is an opportunity to individualize information for parents by helping them identify which calorie-reducing behaviors may be easiest for them to implement. Based on the Alliance research, communications with parents need to support the role that calories play in weight management as well as strategies on how to easily discern the relative calorie content of foods prepared at home and in mixed dishes.