U.S. Eating Habits Still Favor Value and Convenience

Studying what and how people choose to eat while dining out reveals important nutritional attitudes and trends. To stay informed, Aramark Corp. annually conducts more than 5,000 online interviews to discover Americans' away-from-home dining habits and nutritional preferences.

Collected by Datassential Research through online questionnaires and analyzed by Candice Bennett & Associates, the data indicated a rising health awareness among the population, increasing from 50 percent concerned about nutrition in 2004 to 54 percent in 2005. However, consumers are still motivated by other factors such as quick and easy meals and the financial value of larger portions.

Interest in nutrition doesn't indicate low BMI

The largest category of respondents, weighted to represent 20 percent of the American adult population, is interested in eating well, with 98 percent concerned about the nutritional value of their food. However, the body mass index (BMI) of individuals in this group is the highest, averaging 29.7. (A BMI of 25 to 29.9 is overweight. One point more: 30 and greater is clinically obese.) A little more than half of the people in this category blamed their weight on busy lifestyles.

Perception of Weight is Flawed

During the course of the 2006 study, Aramark discovered that only one in 10 Americans whose BMI classifies them as obese recognize they have a weight problem.

"There seems to be a real disconnect between perception and reality among those who are clinically obese," said Chris Malone, Aramark senior vice president of marketing.

The 2006 research, which logged respondents' self-reported weight and height, showed an increase in the average BMI, which now stands at 29.0. This puts the typical American clearly overweight and very close to obesity. The average weight was reported to be 188.3 pounds, 2.5 pounds heavier than the 2005 average.

The data, grouping like respondents, indicates a difference of 2.5 BMI between the category with the highest BMI and the lowest: 27.2 BMI. Surprisingly, those on the low end of the weight scale find health consciousness to be an extremely low concern.

BMI not correlated with vending use

Both of these groups, the lowest and highest BMI individuals, use vending machines fairly regularly, averaging one to two times a day, which is very close to the national average of 1.5/day.

By far the highest usage, hovering just below three times a day, are those people who eat out most often. These individuals represent 12 percent of the population, are mostly male, with an average BMI close to 28.7, and have a tendency not to be concerned with the nutritional value of foods.

Good and bad health trends: media Creations?

These are no doubt the people that fast food chains like CKE Restaurants Inc. (the Carpinteria, Calif.-based operator of Hardee's and Carl's Jr.) are targeting when they buck the health trend exploited by giants like McDonalds. Andrew Puzder, CKE's chief executive, told The Los Angeles Times, "The way people like to think they eat, and the way they actually eat is usually very different." Puzder points to the low sales of salads and other "healthy" items at his restaurants as proof this is a trend more in the media than people's eating habits. That is why CKE has brought a jumbo-sized cheeseburger smothered in sliced steak to its restaurants.

Continued strife over whether nutrition should be regulated in some way comes from watchdog organizations that have lobbied to remove soft drinks from schools, analyzed wellness policies, and are rallying for a sugar, soda, fat or other "twinkie" tax.

Even corporations are jumping on the bandwagon. USA Today recently reported on companies following the cafeteria reform of schools. Most notable was Mortgage Lenders Network USA, where the lunchroom in the new facility will include herbs and vegetables grown on-site. Breakrooms will be stocked with complementary fruit from local orchards. Another office has started instituting Fresh Fruit Fridays in break areas. The management used to buy doughnuts, but felt there was a mixed message being sent, so now there are bananas, apples and other fruit.

The fact that obesity continues to increase in the population charges foodservice with a challenge. As a responsible industry, vending and foodservice providers need to continue to aggressively promote nutritious offerings. Although 54 percent of American adults are working towards more nutritionally based attitudes, convenience and monetary savings continue to encourage eating unhealthy foods, which is leading to a population with weight-related illnesses. The addition of snacks that are better for the consumer will certainly aid in reversing the trend, along with continued education and better consumer choices.

Study identifies six dining styles

The Aramark Nutritional DiningStyles™ research identified six distinct categories across the U.S. population: Health Focused, Nutrition Curious, Passive Dieters, Restaurant Regulars, Health Riskers and Indulgent Risk Takers.

Health Focused

The largest number of American consumers, 20 percent, fall into the Health Focused DiningStyle™. They are interested in eating well and evaluate ingredients and food preparation when dining out. This group also limits their use of fast food restaurants. Characteristics of the Health Focused group are:

  • 64 percent female; 36 percent male
  • Fourth highest body mass index: 28.6
  • 78 percent exercise at least once a week
  • 58 percent are equally as health conscious whether eating out or at home
  • 98 percent watch what they eat and are concerned about nutrition
  • Purchase food or beverages from a vending machine 1.09 times each day; general population average is 1.52 vending purchases each day
  • 56 percent don't order value/combo meals from fast food restaurants; next highest percentage, 21 percent, only order the meals as a special indulgence.

Nutrition Curious

The 17 percent of the population that falls into the Nutrition Curious category has an interest in making healthy choices, but stress and lack of time are their biggest challenges for eating better.

Characteristics of the Nutrition

Curious group are:

  • 57 percent female; 43 percent male
  • Have the second highest BMI: 28.9
  • 21 percent don't exercise
  • 48 percent are more health conscious dining at home than away
  • 38 percent rarely or never watch what they eat, although they are concerned with nutrition
  • Make vending machine purchases 1.67 times per day
  • 39 percent purchase the extra value meals because it is cost-effective, despite knowing it is not always healthy

Passive Dieters

This group of individuals, 17 percent, represents those that eat healthy and exercise. In 2004, Aramark noted that much of this group was on a diet, such as Atkins. More than 50 percent of this group considers ingredients and preparation when choosing food and more than a third avoid ordering dessert.

Characteristics of the Passive Dieters group are:

  • 52 percent are male, 48 are female
  • Have the second lowest BMI of all the segments: 28.1
  • 78 percent exercise at least once a week
  • Purchase, on average, 3.88 meals away from home each week, fewer than any other group
  • 62 percent are somewhat concerned with nutrition, being careful what they eat; 43 percent avoid ordering full-calorie beverages
  • Use vending machines the least, only 0.74 times a week
  • 50 percent do not order value/combo meals at fast food restaurants

Restaurant Regulars

Restaurant Regulars eat out often and don't have a strong preference for healthy items. They represent 12 percent of the population.

Characteristics of the Restaurant Regulars Group are:

  • 61 percent male; 39 percent female
  • Third highest BMI: 28.7
  • 63 percent exercise at least once a week
  • 24 percent never purchase healthy items at restaurants
  • 33 percent rarely or never watch the nutrition in their diet
  • Purchase lunch outside the home approximately 3.08 times per week; use the vending machines most often: 2.95 times a day
  • 38 percent choose the extra value/combo meals at fast food restaurants because "they are easy"; while 35 percent say "they are a good deal"

Health Riskers

The 17 percent of Americans that make up this group eat out frequently, although not as often as Restaurant Regulars. Individuals in this category are overweight and prone to health problems.

Characteristics of the Health Riskers Group are:

  • 55 percent are female; 45 percent male
  • Highest BMI of all the categories: 29.7
  • 67 percent exercise at least once a week
  • 15 percent are more health conscious dining out than at home
  • 52 percent say their busy schedule is the biggest contributor to not eating healthy
  • Use a vending machine on average 1.48 times each day
  • 32 percent buy the combination meals because of their cost-effectiveness, regardless of knowing they aren't healthy; another 32 percent choose them simply because "they are a good deal"

Indulgent Risk Takers

Portions are larger, and the value of convenience and price are big motivators for the Indulgent Risk Takers -- 17 percent of the population. More than three-fourths of these individuals never diet.

Characteristics of the Indulgent Risk Takers Group are:

  • 61 percent male; 39 percent female
  • Lowest BMI: 27.2 (Ironically)
  • 42 percent exercise at least once a week
  • 51 percent rank health consciousness as an extremely low concern when eating out
  • 23 percent are not at all concerned with nutrition
  • Purchase food or beverages from vending machines 1.65 times each day
  • 47 percent purchase value meals because they are a good deal; 42 percent because they are easy

The Aramark Nutritional DiningStyles research is ongoing, with the eating style calculator available at