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Industry experts discuss the challenges individuals face in maintaining healthy eating resolutions, the evolving mindset towards balanced diets and body image and the importance of sustainable changes over drastic measures. They suggest that food and beverage brands can contribute by innovating with better-tasting, healthier products to support consumers in achieving their goals.
January 10, 2024
According to surveys, just north of a third of Americans (37%) made some sort of resolution on Jan. 1. But if the results of further polling are to be believed, 80% of those resolutions will wind up abandoned by mid-February.
Given the proportion of resolutions—whether failed or nailed—that involve healthier eating, one could argue that the food and beverage industry has a role to play in improving Americans’ odds of resolution success. As it turns out, savvy brands are embracing that role, and playing it to the hilt.
Resolving to overhaul one’s diet is a formidable goal any time of year, let alone in the darkest days of midwinter after all the tinsel has come down. The reason why is as inescapable as our very natures.
“Humans have tongues,” Bob Gruder, founder of Bob’s Natural, said. (And we like to use them.) “We love trying different foods and flavors and having the ability to feel textures. So, for most people, eating brings satisfaction and comfort, not just health.”
While store shelves are replete with better-for-you options developed to bridge the gap between wellness and “wow,” many shoppers “can’t envision themselves eating those products for the rest of their lives because they simply recall the joy of taste,” according to Gruder.
Does that condemn us to a forced choice between deliciousness and deprivation? Far from it. “We have to train our minds and bodies to eat differently while still enjoying that experience,” Gruder explained.
Rumblings on the foodscape suggest we may even be doing so. “Over time, we’ve transitioned to a mindset where we’re looking at how we can include all foods on our plate,” Jasmine Westbrooks, MS, RD, CDCES, a diabetes dietitian and co-founder of the nonprofit Eatwell Exchange, said. The payoff? “Including all foods creates a space for balance versus restriction,” she added.
That’s a welcome corrective to the unsustainable diets and irrational “food rules” that left the public “feeling ashamed and guilty of the foods we eat,” according to Westbrooks. “We’re now more interested in preserving foods from our heritage and acknowledging that these foods offer us nutritional benefits, highlight our identity and bring us joy,” she explained.
We’re also rethinking the relationship that’s long correlated appearance with wellness—“dismantling the perception that we must be a certain size to be healthy,” she continued. “Media has made slight changes to the public’s awareness and view of all body sizes, and that’s redefining what a healthy body looks like.”
While we’ve got a way to go on that count, eating habits, physical activities and mental health practices that we can sustain now take center stage, and if a byproduct of their adoption is weight loss plus longevity and quality of life, more’s the better.
Yet even with this enlightened mindset, sustaining those healthy eating resolutions can still be a slog. And when it is, Gruder reminds resolvers that “good enough” is sufficient.
“You don’t have to adopt a ‘perfectly healthy’ diet,” he said. “‘Healthier’ is a start.” And it may be a more effective one, too, as few will ever jettison all their crave-worthy comforts. Even if we did, “Deprivation can backfire,” per Gruder.
To wit, he points to research showing that calorie-deficit dieting “actually has a slingshot effect: The diet will work for a short time, then the dieter may actually gain more weight than they lost.” Small shifts, by contrast, are more supportable. “You don’t have to make drastic or radical diet changes,” Gruder said.
“Slow and steady,” however, may be hard to stomach in an era when “we live with an expectation of ‘microwave results,’” Westbrooks said. “Most of the time we associate change with instant change. We fail to realize that great and successful outcomes take time and practice. So we must find eating habits that can be flexible, fit our lifestyle and are currently accessible. We must make it look appealing and believe we can succeed in it. Lastly, we need support that inspires us to eat healthier options.”
As she puts it, “Motivation slowly fades, but finding ways to be inspired to make healthy changes facilitates room for change.”
Is it the job of food and beverage brands to spark this motivation? Not entirely. “Brands aren’t powerful enough to change the eating dynamics of the entire population,” Gruder explained. “The only way a brand can influence consumers to make better choices is to make better-tasting, healthier products.”
That entails constant iteration. “There’ve been hundreds, if not thousands, of healthy products introduced, and oftentimes they never become mainstream, everyday purchases,” Gruder maintained. “Whether it’s a textural issue, a strange aftertaste or price, the public ultimately wants convenient, good-for-you foods.”
Alas, those won’t come in microwave time, although the finished product may come out of a microwave. “Ultimately, food companies have to innovate with alternative ingredients many times before they find the perfect combination that results in a great-tasting product,” Gruder said. “Many companies are trying to create alternatives in known categories like better-for-you chocolates, beverages, cereals and snacks for a more balanced approach to healthful eating.”
A warm reception will greet those products when they arrive. “People welcome innovation,” Gruder explained. “They want to be healthier. Not many people wake up and say, ‘I want to be unhealthy today.’ But they don’t wake up and say, ‘I want to eat food that tastes like cardboard today,’ either.”
That’s why Westbrooks applauds industry’s efforts. “It’s wise for brands to nudge healthy options because it can save people’s lives if the product truly fits the health benefits a consumer needs,” she said. And this is where she believes that dietitians, as “the direct connection between evidence-based scientific nutrition advice and the public,” can assist.
“Consumers need to see how a product fits into their lives and makes eating healthy easy, simple, tasty and truly beneficial,” she said. “And they need to trust the product.”
Perhaps helping them do that should be industry’s resolution for 2024 and beyond.
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