The weight loss industry hit a new peak in 2018, reaching a $72 billion all-time high. With millennials being the industry’s largest growing target, the market projects a 2.6% annual growth through 2023, and companies also seem to be priming children. Although maintaining a healthy lifestyle is a good thing, experts are concerned about where we’re headed: Are Americans too obsessed with being healthy? And will this have harmful effects?
While this may require further research, the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD) estimates that every 62 minutes, at least one person dies from an eating disorder. Additionally, orthorexia – the obsessive fixation on eating healthy – has emerged.
To better understand Americans’ relationship with food, we surveyed 1,000 people about their eating habits relative to their health. Explore our findings as we uncover how a good thing like clean eating can turn into a dangerous habit.
In his 2008 book (later made into a documentary), “In Defense of Food,” journalist Michael Pollan introduced us to “nutritionism.” According to Pollan, nutritionism tells us that the most important thing about food is its nutritional parts. Ultimately, we find ourselves refusing certain food and condemning others who don’t subscribe to the same belief.
Although we didn’t test our participants’ belief in nutritionism, our findings show that nearly 84% of people believed some food is harmful to their health. Two percent thought food should be all about enjoyment, but 5% said it’s all about providing nutrients to the body. However, 63% of people held the notion that eating food should be equally about enjoyment and nutrition.
Pollan’s work also calls attention to the fact that most Americans have been led to believe only experts know what’s good to eat. So, one week we’re all gulping down eggs because someone said they’re “good” for us, while the next week, we’re ignoring eggs at the supermarket because they’re regarded as “bad” – there seems to be a lot of controversy (and obsession) surrounding food.
The majority of participants in our study had positive feelings about whole grains, meat, and dairy. Eighty-five percent voted in favor of whole grains, believing they are part of a healthy diet. Veganism is on the rise, but 69% of people thought a healthy diet includes meat, and 65% said the same of dairy.
Making the Cut
Much of our present-day understanding of food can be traced back to Ancel Keys and John Harvey Kellogg: One helped popularize fat-free, the other vegetarianism.
After limited scientific research, Ancel Keys and his wife Margaret deemed fat bad, which is misguided. Kellogg, a devout member of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, pioneered a vegetarian but grain-heavy diet – hence corn flakes. Although Keys and Kellogg were born more than 100 years ago, much of what Americans cut out of their diets now is based on standards their research influenced.
So, what do people cut out? Everything from sugar and meat to nonorganic food (conventionally grown). The majority (54%) of people reported cutting out soda and sugary drinks for health reasons. It might be unsurprising that 59% of those who considered themselves very conscious removed soda and sugary beverages from their diet, but 47% of those who said they aren’t health-conscious also passed up such drinks. Energy drinks, alcohol, candy, and deep-fried foods were also often cut due to fear of harm.
However, participants didn’t only cut food out of their diet; they skipped out on social events due to fear of food – this is where orthorexia really rears its ugly head. Thirty percent of very health-conscious people said they declined invitations because of food fears.
Cost of a Healthy Diet
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) estimates that a liberal monthly grocery budget costs the average American woman and man anywhere from $301 to $370, depending on their age.
Participants in our study, including very conscious eaters, spent less than the U.S. average on groceries. However, their average monthly food cost, including supplements and dining out, fell in line with the USDA’s estimations, except for very health-conscious consumers who spent $382, on average.
For many, being healthy may also mean taking supplements, ranging from coconut oil to multivitamins. Dietary supplements are a $30 billion industry, but experts continue to question their necessity. Although limited evidence suggests these products put consumers at a health benefit, 43% of the participants in our study reported spending $10 to $29 on supplements each month – with some spending upward of $70. Millennials ($30) were the biggest purchasers.
Multivitamins were the most popular supplement among millennials (66%), baby boomers (61%), and Gen Xers (60%), followed by vitamin C or D and B12. Although it hasn’t caught on with the other generations as fast, 17% of millennials reported using CBD.
Power of Social Media
A recent study done on adolescents found a connection between social media use and behaviors associated with eating disorders. It seems this type of influence isn’t unique to young people, though. One in 3 women and 1 in 5 men in our study reported feeling self-conscious about their eating habits due to social media.
Forty-three percent of people did not follow any health-related Instagram accounts, but 23% followed five or more, compared to 34% who followed fewer than five. Individuals who identified as very health-conscious were likely to follow the most number of health-related Instagram accounts: seven, on average. This suggests they would be most at risk because 48% of people who followed five or more health accounts reported feeling self-conscious about their eating habits.
Staying on Track
People may turn to “experts” to guide their nutritional needs because they believe some food might be harmful. While it is true that some food products, like sugary treats, don’t have ample health benefits, most things in moderation won’t hurt you. Our findings show that most people restrict certain food items from their diets, and others even isolate themselves to avoid consuming “bad” food.
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Methodology and Limitations
We surveyed 1,000 people about their relationship with food to explore how people feel about their eating habits in relation to their health. Our survey respondents were 50% male, 50% female, and around three respondents identified as nonbinary. Respondents ranged in age from 18 to 78 with a mean age of 38 and a standard deviation of 13 years. We did not have a validated scale for health satisfaction, so we created our own from 1 to 5, with 1 being “not very satisfied” and 5 being “very satisfied.” Our project data are exploratory, and survey data have limitations, such as telescoping and exaggeration. Hypotheses were not statistically tested.
Fair Use Statement
There are many ideas about what makes food good or bad, and we believe our research offers a critical perspective. So, please share our findings and assets with others for noncommercial reuse. But do us a favor and link back to this page where readers can find the complete study and review our methodology.