Taking a page out of Hippocrates, “let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food,” consumers are increasingly shopping for groceries with an appetite for health, found in research published this week by the International Food Information

Center cleverly titled, An Appetite for Health.

The top line: over two-thirds of older adults are managing more than one chronic condition and looking to nutrition to help manage disease.

Most consumers have that “appetite for health” across a wide range of conditions, with two rising to the top as “extremely important:” heart health and brain function. Other top-ranked issues are emotional/mental health, energy, and maintaining a healthy weight, along with other conditions and health aspirations shown in the chart.

A quick glance at the chart underscores the point that a majority of older consumers see food playing a role in virtually every condition polled, ranking them all very important or somewhat important.

Older adults are changing their health by changing their eating habits, with:

  • 9 in 10 trying to eat the right amount and variety of vegetables and protein
  • 6 in 10 reporting eating a healthier diet than they did 20 years ago
  • 9 in 10 believing it’s never too late to make diet and lifestyle changes.

While the spirit and the flesh are willing, there are barriers to older people actually making these dietary changes. First, there’s the barrier of nutrition literacy: IFIC found that consumers don’t really know what foods can help achieve desired health outcomes. One in three older adults could not identify a specific food to either consume or eliminate that would help them achieve a desired health outcome. This speaks to the need for much more education about what healthy food looks like, and which nutrients tie to specific personal health goals.

The most frequently identified food-for-health was vegetables (cited by 28% of people), followed by protein (18%) and fruit (17%).

Older people were smart enough to identify that knowledge was the top issue standing in their way, followed by accessibility and physical ability as factors enabling a healthy diet. Additional barriers cited were cost and time, preventing people from eating healthier, people said.

The survey was conducted online among 1,005 Americans age 50 and older between January and February 2018. The research was supported by Abbott.

Health Populi’s Hot Points:  As patients morph into health consumers, seeking food options that make health, they’re also savvy buyers, who clip coupons, shop private labels, and look for value-priced products in their lives. This applies to health and food, too.

Dr. Carolyn Scrafford and her research team presented compelling research this week in Boston at the annual Nutrition 2018 conference convened by the American Society for Nutrition on the subject of healthcare costs and savings accruing based on U.S. adults adopting healthy eating patterns. 

The research methodology modeled cost savings based on two behavior change assumptions: that consumers’ adopted healthy dietary patterns, achieving a 20% or 80% score based on the Healthy Eating Index (HEI) and the Mediterranean-style diet (MED) regimes. Under the 20% scenario, the U.S. could save an average of $25.7 billion (HEI) to $38.1 billion (MED) in indirect and direct costs, resulting from reductions in cardiovascular disease, cancer, Type 2 diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease and hip fractures. With the 80% scenario, cost-savings increases to a range of $66.9 billion (HEI) to $135 billion (MED).

Nearly one-half of the cost reductions would connect to heart disease because it is so directly influenced by diet quality.

These large macroeconomic national numbers would translate to individuals and their households in terms of patients direct and indirect costs for healthcare and disability, along with improved quality of life for U.S. health citizens.

IFIC’s research recognizes that consumers are connecting the dots between food, food-as-medicine, and health. If people can sustain healthy foodstyles, like the Mediterranean (or DASH) diet, or the Healthy Eating Index, we well find that the U.S. healthcare cost curve is bending based on the actions of American patients eating more healthfully.

For more information about these eating paradigms, check out these websites:

Mediterranean Diet from the Mayo Clinic website

DASH Diet from the Mayo Clinic website

Healthy Eating Index from the USDA portal

Hot Point Postscript:  This morning’s New York Times features an article by Gina Kolata covering the retraction, then re-issuing, of the landmark Mediterranean Diet study in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2013. The Mediterranean Diet was identified decades-ago as an eating style adopted by people living in that region of the world where citizens had lower rates of heart disease and cancer. The 2013 study was conducted in Spain among nearly 7,500 participants between 55 and 80 years of age each of whom partook in one of three diets: the Mediterranean including four tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil per day (EVOO to you Rachel Ray fans); the Mediterranean diet with an ounce of mixed nuts; and, a traditional low-fat diet.

The critique of the study focused on the recruitment of participants into the randomized clinical trial, with one statistician finding, “small problems affecting 10% of participants,” according to the NY Times story. Responding to that criticism, the researchers statistically adjusted 390 participants among households that were not randomly assigned to the three trial groups. This was followed with an additional re-analysis of 652 participants who lived in small villages, some of whom had received free olive oil versus others who got nuts or small gifts.

At the end of these two re-visits to the study, the researchers came to the same conclusion: that a Mediterranean diet positively impacted heart disease and cancer outcomes.