The prevalence of overweight and obesity in the United States has increased attention to the importance of balancing calories to manage weight. Numerous policy and educational efforts are aimed at helping consumers achieve calorie balance.
Calorie balance, also referred to as energy balance, is a key recommendation and strategic communications platform of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010. Considering the link between poor diet and physical activity behaviors and risk for chronic illness, the 2010 Dietary Guidelines is the first to expand the intended audience to also include those who are at increased risk of chronic disease (i.e., those who are overweight or obese). The 2010 Dietary Guidelines also is inclusive of the 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, which provide evidence-based guidance directed at improving the health of Americans aged six or older through appropriate physical activity.
Since 2006, findings from the International Food Information Council (IFIC) Foundation Food & Health Survey illustrate consumers’ lack of understanding of calories and energy balance. The critical issue for nutrition and health communicators is the need for consumer-centered strategies that inspire action toward balancing calories consumed via foods and beverages and calories burned through metabolic processes and physical activity to achieve and maintain a healthy weight.
Recognizing consumers’ calorie disconnect in past Food & Health surveys , IFIC convened an Expert Roundtable with some of the brightest minds in nutrition and physical activity, behavior, and policy in 2009 to engage in a critical analysis of challenges and experiences in communicating the calorie balance equation to consumers. The purpose of this Expert Roundtable on Energy and Calorie Balance was to begin creating an action plan for an environment where similar calorie balance messages could be effectively delivered to and adopted by consumers.
The rationale for the IFIC Expert Roundtable on Energy and Calorie Balance was grounded in the experience that expert evaluation and discussion serve to: 1) clarify needs, 2) provide direction for future action, 3) reduce duplication, 4) enhance efficiencies and effectiveness, 5) strengthen collaborations among stakeholders, and 6) maximize synergies to implement strategic frameworks and programs that result in “quick wins” for consumers. In addition to nutrition and/or physical activity, the experts had experience with program development and implementation, making them well-equipped to provide practical advice on facilitating behavioral change toward achieving calorie balance.
The realities of the communications environment, including a thorough discussion of consumer perspectives, challenges, and opportunities, were addressed. Discussion of current initiatives allowed the group to explore issues concerning target audiences, outcomes and measures, messaging, and dissemination. Key communication allies and detractors, as well as partnership and collaboration possibilities received considerable attention by the expert participants.
Two key concepts were identified by the experts and have the potential to create unique opportunities for promoting healthful eating and physical activity behaviors among consumers.
Concept 1: Healthier lifestyles will become the norm when consumers demand cultural changes toward that reality and society responds to address those demands. It is essential that the public drive this movement in order for real change to occur. The current environment, where information on the calorie balance message is passively received, is not working.
Concept 2: A “surround-sound” (e.g., 360 degree) communications approach, where consistent and coordinated messages on the calorie balance concept come from multiple sources at multiple touch points, will improve the breadth and depth of reach into the places where consumers live, work, and play.
The Expert Roundtable participants provided other insights that could help develop best practices for communicating the calorie balance equation by various stakeholders. They are as follows:
- Calorie balance communication should be individualized, including messaging, delivery, and goal setting for individuals. Three related perspectives shed light on the necessity of individualization: 1) Nutrition research demonstrates that nutritional needs vary among individuals; 2) Behavioral research demonstrates that consumers respond more effectively to approaches that respect individuality; and 3) Consumer research illustrates a preference for individualized messages and strategies.
- Multiple sectors must engage consumers at every point where food and physical activity decisions are made—where they live, work, and play.
- Consumers want messages to be positive, short, simple, easy-to-follow, fun, and focused on food - not nutrients.
- Motivating consumers toward dietary and activity behavior changes requires connecting the action to issues that are valuable to the individual, even if they are not related to health, such as family time or the environment. Examples include using physical activity to increase “family time” or to reduce carbon emissions.
- Make the most of the powerful influence of role models. The parent is the most influential role model for young children. Beginning at about 13 years of age, however, the peer influencer becomes increasingly important.
- Behavior change is complex. Future communications should consider the need to move the target audience through the stages of behavior change, message repetition, and social influences such as one’s circle of friends.
The complete Expert Roundtable proceedings comprehensively capture the rich and lively dialogue among the experts and include a list of the Roundtable participants. IFIC initiated a plan-of-action to build on the outcomes from the Expert Roundtable discussion, including engaging in consumer message-testing research as a member of the Dietary Guidelines Alliance in 2010 and broadening of the dialogue with additional groups in 2011. Future issues of Food Insight will feature related efforts that can assist communicators in inspiring action toward calorie balance.