Public Opinion On Eating Habits In The U.S.
Over the past two decades, the U.S. food scene has changed considerably. Debates over food sources, proper diets and nutrition, food allergies, and food research have extended beyond the scientific community to members of the general public. The Pew Research Center recently conducted a survey investigating public opinions about food and food science. The survey focused primarily on perceptions regarding genetically modified foods but also touched on topics including healthy eating, food allergies, and vegetarian and vegan diets. Results were published in The New Food Fights: U.S. Public Divides Over Food Science, available for free online.
The summary below reports specifically on chapter 1 of the report, “Public views about Americans’ eating habits,” which contains many findings that may be useful for advocates. Findings include the following:
- While 54% of U.S. adults say that people in the U.S. pay more attention to eating healthy foods today than they did 20 years ago, 54% also say that eating habits in the U.S. are less healthy than they were 20 years ago. Additionally, 63% of U.S. adults blame both food quality and quantity for bad eating habits, and 72% recognize that healthy eating is very important for a long and healthy life.
- When asked to classify their eating habits, more Americans say they focus on taste and nutrition than convenience. Additionally, 58% of U.S. adults admit that they should be eating healthier, and 41% say they already eat what they should to stay healthy. Not surprisingly, most people who say they focus on eating healthy state that they are more satisfied with their diets than people who say that are not focused on healthy eating.
- About 15% of U.S. adults say they have severe, moderate, or mild allergies to at least one kind of food, and 17% say they have food intolerances. Demographically, food allergies are more common in women, blacks, and people who have asthma or other chronic lung conditions.
- About 6% of U.S. adults identify as mostly vegetarian or vegan and 3% as strict vegetarian or vegan. Age appears to influence dietary choice, with 12% of adults ages 18 to 49 at least mostly vegan or vegetarian compared to only 5% of those 50 or older. Additionally, 15% of liberal Democrats are at least mostly vegan or vegetarian while only 4% are among conservative Republicans. Gender, geographic region, education, and income is not associated with a greater likelihood of identifying as vegetarian or vegan. Interestingly, about a third of people who identify as at least mostly vegan or vegetarian also report food allergies, suggesting that “some food restrictions stem from adverse reactions to certain foods.”
- Social patterns occur when it comes to eating philosophies and eating habits. Most U.S. adults who are focused on eating healthy have some or many close friends and family who are similarly focused. The same pattern is observed for those following vegetarian and vegan diets. About half (52%) of people who are at least mostly vegan or vegetarian say that some or most of their closest family and friends also follow vegan or vegetarian diets; only 8% of those who are not themselves vegan or vegetarian claim similar social ties.
- U.S. adults are split on whether they should consider food restrictions and allergies when hosting others. An equal number of respondents say that hosts should always or never ask guests about food restrictions ahead of time. An equal number of respondents also say it does or does not bother them to ask guests about food restrictions when hosting.
- U.S. adults are paying attention to news and research about food. Sixty-six (66) percent say they read or hear stories about the health effects of food on a daily or weekly basis. Many U.S. adults claim that new studies often conflict with earlier ones; however, the majority acknowledge that these conflicts make sense because new research is always improving. On the other hand, people who have less scientific knowledge are just as likely to feel that conflicting reports indicate that food research cannot be trusted.
This chapter includes several takeaways for advocates regarding vegetarian and vegan diet trends, perceptions on healthy eating, and the validity of scientific research related to food. Notably, it provides up-to-date information on the demographics of people who eat mostly or totally vegetarian and vegan diets in the United States. It also highlights the intersection of vegetarian/vegan diets and food allergies, indicating that outreach materials should spotlight this topic. The article also highlights the importance of social patterns in making dietary decisions, indicating that advocacy efforts might be more effective on people who have friends and family that follow vegetarian and vegan diets. Moreover, advocates should focus on providing social support to people who have fewer vegetarian and vegan friends. In regards to healthy food, advocates might consider targeting people who are not currently focused on healthy eating, as many are aware of and dissatisfied with their current diets. Lastly, advocates who produce or report on research about food should consider the level of scientific knowledge of their audiences and be explicit about the nature of changing information, noting that change indicates progress.