Americans Don't Know How Many Calories to Eat to Lose Weight, Survey Says

Only one of every eight adult Americans knows how many calories he should consume in a day while almost two-thirds recently changed eating habits, mainly to lose weight, according to an industry-backed survey.

“There is confusion on all sides of the calorie equation,” said Wendy Reinhardt Kapsak, a director with the Washington-based International Food Information Council Foundation, which released the survey today. “They need references for those numbers,” she said in an interview. The group’s educational arm includes representatives from General Mills Inc., Kraft Foods Inc. and Mars Inc.

Diets and calorie counts are part of Michelle Obama’s push for companies to make healthier products. The first lady in May won pledges from companies including General Mills, Kraft and PepsiCo Inc. to reduce calories by changing recipes or cutting portion sizes. Companies involved account for 20 to 25 percent of the U.S. food supply.

Losing weight is the number-one reason why Americans change their diets, with 65 percent of dieters citing it as a factor, the council’s survey showed. Consumers are also becoming more suspicious about sugar, more likely to drink caffeinated beverages and are trying to eat more protein, according to the survey.

Sugar, Caffeine

The percentage of respondents agreeing that “moderate amounts of sugar can be part of an overall healthful diet” fell to 58 percent from 66 percent last year and 71 percent in 2008, the foundation said. About 72 percent said they consume caffeine in moderation, up from 64 percent in 2008, the first year consumers were asked about the sweetener and the stimulant.

The percentage saying they are trying to consume more protein was 49 percent, while 6 percent said they’d eat less. Twice as many consumers identified the nutrition source as coming from animal sources rather than from plants, 56 percent to 28 percent. This was the first year questions about protein were included.

Respondents were also asked about their weights and perceptions of obesity as well as their fitness activity.

Fifty-seven percent said they considered themselves overweight, with 8 percent saying they were obese. In reality 33 percent were overweight and 34 percent obese, according to the data. Meanwhile, 77 percent were not meeting the Health and Human Services Department’s physical-activity guidelines, based on how much and what type of exercise they do.

Public-Policy Solutions

Public-policy solutions to obesity ranging from taxes on sodas to printed calorie counts in restaurant menus have been proposed by officials including Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, founder and majority owner of Bloomberg News parent Bloomberg LP.

Such solutions may not be effective without consumer education on the nutritional value and proper consumption levels of food, said Marianne Smith Edge, the foundation’s senior vice president for nutrition and food safety.

“Despite the amount of information out there, people still don’t understand,” she said in an interview.

The survey of 1,024 consumers over the age of 18, conducted from April 30 to May 17 by Cogent Research of Cambridge, Massachusetts, has a margin of error of 3 percentage points, the council said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Alan Bjerga in Washington at abjerga@bloomberg.net.

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