ERS examines the role of economic incentives in food choices
and, in turn, how these choices affect diet quality and health.
Food choices are influenced not only by prices and income, but also
by family structure, time constraints, psychological factors,
nutritional information, and Federal food and nutrition assistance
programs, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program
(SNAP, formerly the Food Stamp Program). Understanding how economic
and behavioral factors influence eating behavior is key to
developing a solution to the rising rates of obesity in the United
Fruit and Vegetable Consumption
Increasing U.S. consumption of fruits and vegetables has been a
major theme of Federal dietary guidelines for over a decade. A diet
rich in fruits and vegetables is associated with higher intakes of
key nutrients, such as folate, potassium, and vitamins A and C.
Because these foods tend to have fewer calories per serving than
other foods, they can also play an important part in reducing
incidence of overweight and obesity (see "Understanding Economic and Behavioral Influences
on Fruit and Vegetable Choices"). Yet, despite clear health
benefits and consistent Federal recommendations, most Americans
fall short of their recommended fruit and vegetable intake.
To better understand the reasons for the persistent difficulty
in increasing produce consumption, ERS has published a series of
research briefs to provide information on the economic, social, and
behavioral factors that influence fruit and vegetable consumption
(see Understanding Fruit and Vegetable
Choices--Research Briefs). Key findings are:
Socioeconomic Factors and Diet Quality
ERS researchers have also produced a growing body of work that
examines how socioeconomic factors affect other aspects of diet
quality, such as how well an individual's diet conforms to Federal
- Individuals who have higher incomes, have more formal
education, or are older tend to choose higher quality diets (see The Role of Economics in Eating Choices and Weight
- Single parents have lower quality diets than married parents,
and are more likely to skip breakfast and drink sugary beverages
(see The Role of Economics in Eating Choices and Weight
- Household characteristics, such as whether a household is
headed by a single, working parent, may increase the demand for
convenience foods and food away from home (see The Role of Economics in Eating Choices and Weight
- Food away from home plays an increasing role in Americans'
diets, usually with negative effects on diet quality (Guthrie, Lin
and Frazao, Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior).
(Contact Biing-Hwan Lin).
- Increased eating out appears to be a major factor in declining diet quality as children become
- Acculturation and attitudes about diet and health also have a
significant correlation with dietary choices.
- Traditional diets eaten by Hispanics who do not speak English
are more healthful than the diets of acculturated Hispanics (see "Acculturation Erodes the Diet Quality of U.S.
- Consumers' misperception of diet quality can also have a
significant impact on actual diet quality. An estimated 40 percent
of individuals who prepared the household's meals perceived the
quality of their diets to be better than their calculated diet
quality (Variyam et al., Journal of Nutrition Education).
(Contact Jay Variyam).
Do American diets meet the Dietary Guidelines for
ERS has produced a growing body of work on how closely Americans
are following recommendations in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans
(Guidelines). The Federal Government publishes the
Guidelines to help Americans adopt eating patterns that
promote health and reduce the risks of major chronic diseases. The
- Uses up-to-date scientific and medical knowledge about
individual nutrients and food components to develop eating
recommendations for Americans age 2 and older.
- First published in 1980, updates recommendations every 5 years
to keep up with changes in physical activity and food consumption
trends over time as well as with the latest scientific and medical
information on nutrition and health.
- Replaced its 1992 supporting guidance document, the Food Guide
Pyramid, with the MyPyramid Food Guidance System in 2005.
A 1999 report titled
A Dietary Assessment of the U.S. Food Supply: Comparing Per
Capita Food Consumption with Food Guide Pyramid Serving
Recommendations found that most American diets do not meet
Federal Food Guide Pyramid dietary recommendations. On average,
people consumed too many servings of added fats and sugars and too
few servings of fruits, vegetables, dairy products, lean meats, and
foods made from whole grains-compared with the Food Guide Pyramid's
serving recommendations appropriate to the age and gender
composition of the U.S. population. This report was the first
dietary assessment to use ERS's time-series Food Availability data
(also known as food supply or food disappearance data) to compare
average diets with Federal dietary recommendations depicted in the
Food Guide Pyramid. Both the ERS
Loss-Adjusted Food Availability data and the baseline Food
Availability data are available. A 2008 ERS report tells a similar story that
Americans are not making much progress in improving what they
Behavioral and Psychological Studies
To better understand why so many individuals choose diets and
lifestyles that lead to obesity and ill health, economists are
increasingly looking to psychology for answers. And for good
reason--findings from behavioral and psychological studies indicate
that people regularly behave in ways that contradict some basic
economic assumptions. Human responses to prices and changes in
income, for instance, are not cut and dry. Experimental studies of
how consumers pay for various goods and services (e.g., cash versus
credit, flat rate versus pay per use) show that payment options
influence consumer choices. Time preferences are not solidly fixed
either. The tradeoffs individuals make between now and the future
fluctuate with situations, stress, and other distractions.
Behavioral experiments also reveal surprising findings about how
individuals use and process information. Each day, people make
thousands of decisions-Should I hit the snooze button once or
twice? Do I have time to eat breakfast at home? If so, what should
I have and how much should I eat? Rather than brood over each
and every quotidian task (and make it to work on time), people tend
to use simple rules of thumb. Given the sheer volume of information
needed to be processed daily, this is an efficient solution. But it
can lead to systematic reasoning errors that, again, become more
likely when someone is distracted or under stress.
Incorporating such idiosyncrasies into economic analysis of
consumer behavior can expand the understanding of motivating
factors behind food choices and health outcomes. This can help in
the design of new ways to encourage all people to choose more
healthful diets (see "Could Behavioral Economics Help Improve Diet Quality
for Nutrition Assistance Program Participants?" and "Insidious Consumption: Surprising Factors That
Influence What We Eat and How Much").