Do calories count for anything these days?
Not according to Jeff Hamilton, the president of prepared foods at Nestle USA, who has seen sales of Lean Cuisine meals plunge 20 percent in the last two years alone. In a fascinating interview with FoodDive's David Oliver, Hamilton argued that Americans have lost their interest in cutting back on their caloric intake.
"Americans are just simply not dieting anymore," Hamilton told Oliver.
As evidence of this idea, Oliver pointed to NPD Group surveys showing that the share of Americans who say they are dieting has plummeted to 20 percent after hitting a high of 33 percent in 1991.
To be clear, Hamilton does not say that Americans have given up on trying to eat healthily. They've just shifted their focus to standards of healthfulness beyond calorie counting. They care far more about avoiding ingredients that are perceived as "unhealthy" or "unnatural." Nearly a third of all Americans, for example, are trying to avoid gluten, and 57 percent say that they prefer to buy foods free of GMOs. They've also become notably interested in eating more protein.
There are a couple different ways you could look at this trend. On the one hand, yo-yo dieting has been linked to a host of harmful consequences, both physical and psychological. And experts such as Michael Pollan have often warned that focusing on calories can be reductive and self-defeating. They argue that a smarter path to health is to think more holistically about the foods we eat and to emphasize whole, natural foods instead of chemical-laden "diet foods." Including Lean Cuisine frozen meals!
Yet it's not clear that Americans are actually following the advice of people like Pollan. Many Americans, after all, seldom cook food from scratch. And they still eat far less vegetables than they ought.
So if Americans aren't acting on their shifting health preferences by cooking more broccoli, what are they doing? They're asking packaged food companies like Nestle and restaurant chains like Taco Bell to remove artificial ingredients and gluten from their products. They're calling for mandatory labels on foods containing GMOs. They're demanding dairy-free ice creams. They're eating Greek yogurt.
All other things being equal, that's fine. But it can be problematic if Americans equate healthy eating with the avoidance of stigmatized ingredients, because little scientific evidence supports the idea that ingesting GMOs and artificial flavorings is harmful to human health, that gluten is bad for people without celiac disease or gluten intolerance or that we're not eating enough protein -- while a great deal of scientific evidence supports the idea that eating too many calories can make you gain weight, and that being too heavy endangers your health.
CORRECTION: This post originally referred to the author of the FoodDive interview with Jeff Hamilton as David Owens. His name is David Oliver.