America: What’s Your Health Worth? – Insights from the 2015 IFIC Foundation Food and Health Survey

“What’s your health worth?” It may seem like a simple question, yet everyone values their health in different ways. Is good health worth a little extra time to you, or a little extra money? If someone offered to pay you to gain 20 pounds, how much would they have to give you before you took the offer?

The 2015 IFIC Foundation Food and Health Survey examines the question of how Americans value their health, delving into the trade-offs Americans make regarding health and nutrition on an everyday basis. These findings provide a wealth of new insights into Americans’ health and nutrition, including perceptions of their own health, an economic divide on food-purchasing decisions, where health and nutrition rank among competing priorities, and the guidance Americans’ want for dietary and health-related choices.

Self-perception vs. reality

Over the Survey’s 10-year history, Americans have consistently rated their health highly. This year is no exception, as 57% of Americans rate their own health as ‘very good’ or ‘excellent.’ Only 8% of Americans rate their health as ‘fair,’ and 1% as ‘poor.’  

But do Americans’ perceptions of their health match up with reality? Results show that 55% of those who rated themselves in ‘very good’ or ‘excellent’ health are either overweight or obese.

Though perceived health status doesn’t appear to correlate with weight status, results show that individuals who see their health as ‘very good’ or ‘excellent’ report being treated for fewer chronic health conditions. In fact, 62% of those who rate their health as ‘very good’ or ‘excellent’ health do not report being treated for any of the conditions listed, including high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes, among others.

An economic divide

This year’s Survey results revealed many large divides between higher and lower income consumers, especially when it came to their purchasing behaviors. Higher-income consumers (above $75,000 per year) appear to be more focused on how foods are produced or sourced, and are significantly more likely than other consumers to buy foods because they were labeled as locally sourced, having no added hormones or steroids, or organic. The Survey results also show that higher-income consumers are more likely to report avoiding many specific food components and ingredients.

We also see an economic divide when it comes to perceptions of processed foods. Half of Americans (51%) acknowledge that foods would cost more if processed foods were hypothetically removed from the food supply, with 45% also saying food would become less convenient. While 43% say the impact of removing processed foods would be improved health or nutrition, higher-income consumers were more likely to answer that way. Lower-income Americans (at or below $35,000 per year), however, are most concerned about cost impacts if processed foods were removed from the food supply.

Competing priorities

Americans lead busy lives and have many priorities to consider. With so much to juggle, sometimes diet and physical activity aren’t at the top of Americans’ to-do list. Similar to previous years, ‘lack of time’ was cited as a top perceived barrier to losing or maintaining weight (second only to ‘lack of will power’). When asked what they would do with if they suddenly had four extra hours every week, the most popular way to spend the extra time (36%) was exercising.

This suggests that many Americans feel that they don’t currently have enough time in their schedules for exercise.

Interestingly, only 11% that said they would devote the extra four hours per week to “cooking or baking.” But how does that compare to the amount of time Americans currently spending cooking? The Survey found that more than half (58%) spend 30 to 44 minutes preparing or cooking dinner on an average weekday, and about one in five Americans spend less than 15 minutes cooking dinner on an average weekday. Those who already spend the most time cooking or preparing dinner (more than 45 minutes on the average week day) are more likely to say they would spend their extra four hours per week cooking or baking.

This is critical information to consider, as public health messages often encourage Americans to spend more time cooking in an effort to eat more healthfully. Most Americans who would choose to spend more time cooking already spend a lot of time cooking, so the potential impact of the message may be limited.

Time isn’t the only limitation affecting how consumers prioritize their health. When asked what they would do with an extra $100 every month, the overwhelming majority of consumers (61%) indicate that they would save it, invest it, or use it pay off debt. Only 13% said they would use the extra $100 to spend more money on groceries and 9% said they would put it toward a gym membership or athletic activities.

So, when it’s a question of what to do with extra income, many Americans would prioritize investing in their financial health over their physical health.

Would you rather lose $1,000 than gain 20 pounds? Findings suggest that your answer may have something to do with your gender. Overall, 56% would rather lose the money. However, only 50% of men said they would rather lose the money, while 61% of women chose to lose the money over gaining the weight.

Turning survey data into clear, actionable guidance

Consumers are clear about what type of nutrition guidance they’re looking for. More than three-quarters (78%) say they would rather hear information about what to eat versus what not to eat. That’s the same result as in 2013, but the percentage who strongly agreed with that statement rose seven percentage points, from 26% to 33%.

With constant media chatter and an ever-changing food landscape, Americans are struggling to find consistent, clear guidance for their health and wellbeing. While 60% of Americans have confidence in the safety of the U.S. food supply, that number has fallen from 70% in 2013, a possible symptom of the heightened level of ‘noise’ in news coverage and online commentary about food. Also, for the first time, ‘chemicals in food’ (36%) has overtaken ‘foodborne illness from bacteria’ (34%) as the top food safety concern for consumers.

Though consumers have wavered on some issues recently, we see that the top drivers of food-purchasing decisions have remained the same. Taste (83%), price (68%), and healthfulness (60%) continue to be the top drivers of food-purchasing decisions, as has been the case every year over the survey’s 10-year history.

Despite the hints of consumer confusion, the results of the 2015 Food and Health Survey show the importance of accentuating the positive. Nutrition communicators should focus on the fact that the overwhelming majority want to hear what they should eat rather than what they should not eat. Americans need positive, actionable guidance to help healthful behaviors rise to the top of their to-do list.

Click here to access more insights and resources from the 2015 Food & Health Survey, including a recording of a health professional webcast of the findings, the Executive Summary report, and press release.