05/11/2016 05:17 EDT | Updated 05/12/2017 05:12 EDT

What Makes Health-Conscious Consumers Tick?

Jeff Greenough via Getty Images
Mixed race woman buying produce in supermarket

Health and wellness is on the mind of an ever-growing part of the populace, at least some of the time, according to one Canadian marketing expert, Ryan Benn, president of Alive Publishing Group (APG), an international publication for the health industry. But as consumers, people are still widely confused about how to make the right diet- and lifestyle choices to reach their desired goals.

For example, when asked about their priorities in their food shopping decisions, the majority of respondents said they preferred "natural" and "organic" products they could trust to be free from health-hazards. By contrast, interest in "dieting" or "weight management" turned out to be less prevalent in their responses, possibly due to a tiring of the public in these matters.

The research was conducted simultaneously in Australia, Canada and the United States, with largely similar findings.

A 2012 survey on consumer attitudes towards food safety, nutrition and health by the International Food Information Council (IFIC) found that most consumers had fewer problems doing their taxes than figuring out how to take better care of their health.

The continuously changing nutrition and lifestyle information they are bombarded with leaves many people frustrated to the point where they lose interest, even those who seriously attempt making improvements, the survey report says.

On the other hand, not everyone feels the need for much of a personal effort either. Nine out of ten survey participants described their overall health status as good. 60 per cent thought they were in excellent or very good shape. Only nine per cent said their health was in fair or poor condition.

But despite the optimistic views of their well-being, most respondents also recognized they could do better, with only about 25 per cent considering their diet- and lifestyle choices as optimal.

Still, nutrition experts see some promising progress in current trends. While the obesity crisis is far from over, years of warnings and dire predictions by health officials apparently are finally getting through.

According to the most recent reports, eating habits are improving both in terms of calorie consumption and nutritional quality.

There are no huge shifts yet in the public's behaviour, but even small changes have a noticeable impact, says Kelly Brownell, an expert on obesity at Duke University's Sanford School of Public Policy.

One possible factor was the aftermath of the 2008 recession, when many people ate out less and prepared more meals at home. That event in itself, the experts say, may have produced at least some positive results, as insufficient as they may turn out to be in the long run.

There is hope, however, that through greater awareness and encouraging experiences, more among those who started making improvements will continue to move in the right direction.

We may be seeing a cultural change like we have had with smoking, according to Dr. Walter Willett, a professor of nutrition and epidemiology at Harvard University's School of Public Health. We may in fact be reaching a tipping point that will lead to a decrease in the consumption of sugary drinks and an increase in the consumption of healthy foods, he said in an interview with CNN.

Obviously there are numerous obstacles still to be overcome to make these developments permanent. One is pricing. Healthy food remains out of reach for too many low-income families.

Another is cooperation (or lack thereof) by the food industry, which could make food labels more easily decipherable and promote smaller portion sizes through alternative packaging - just to mention two of many steps that could be taken without delay.

And, of course, ingrained eating and lifestyle habits are hard to break. No one should be naïve about that. But progress often happens insidiously and may not even be noticeable for some time. Let's hope we are in such a phase.

Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.

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