MONDAY, March 25, 2024 -- Most folks know they’d be healthier if they ate more plant-based foods, but only a quarter are willing to follow through and do it, a new study shows.

Surveys reveal that Americans' beliefs about eating more plants for health are often at odds with their daily dietary choices, researchers say.

“U.S. consumers have favorable perceptions of foods and beverages that support human and environmental health, but that’s not translating into what they’re purchasing and consuming,” said lead researcher Katherine Consavage Stanley, a doctoral student in human nutrition, foods and exercise at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg.

For the study, researchers looked at data from more than a decade of nationwide surveys gathered between 2012 and 2022 by the International Food Information Council, analyzing more than 1,000 participants’ responses.

Across all the years, 73% of Americans said plant proteins were healthy, compared to 39% who said animal proteins were healthy.

The percentage of Americans who follow a plant-rich dietary pattern more than doubled during the decade studied, rising from 12% to nearly 26%.

At the same time, however, the percentage of people eating more red meat also rose, from 13% to 19%.

Generation Z (born 1997-2012) and Millennials (1981-1996) were more likely to follow a plant-rich diet than Generation X (born 1965-1980) or Baby Boomers (1946-1964), results show.

But about 25% of Generation Z and Millennials also reported increased red meat consumption, compared to 10% of older adults.

And during the decade, a declining percentage of Americans identified “healthfulness” as important in their food purchasing choices.

The study also found that eating foods that are environmentally sustainable is important to people, but not as important as how much they cost.

The percentage of people who said it was important to purchase and eat sustainably produced foods declined from 75% to about half during the decade studied, researchers said.

On average, only 32% of consumers said environmental sustainability was a serious factor in their food-buying decisions.

Further, sustainability was consistently ranked as the least important factor in food purchasing, behind convenience, price, healthfulness and taste.

Fewer than one-quarter of respondents said they went out of their way to buy foods labeled organic (27%), locally sourced (26%), environmentally friendly (21%) or plant-based (16%)

Part of that might be because it’s not easy to know the environmental impact of food choices, researchers noted.

Nearly two-thirds of participants said it was tough to know how their food choices affect the environment, results show. However, most said if that information was easier to access, it would influence their decisions.

The results show that more information needs to be provided on the sustainability of food products, Stanley said.

“We can’t expect consumers to make sustainable choices if they don’t know the impacts of their purchases,” she said. “We need to be doing more collectively to educate Americans on the benefits of plant-rich dietary patterns and to provide an environment where making healthy and sustainable purchases is the default choice.”

Follow-up studies will investigate how U.S. media campaigns influence dietary patterns, Stanley said.

The findings were recently published in the journal Nutrients.

More information

Harvard Medical School has more about plant-based diets.

SOURCE: Virginia Tech, news release, March 21, 2024