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 States.

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. 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 Research Briefs in:

Understanding Fruit and Vegetable Choices: Economic and Behavioral Influences

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 dietary recommendations:

  • 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 Outcomes
  • 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 Outcomes
  • 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 Outcomes
  • 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 teenagers.
  • 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.
  • 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 Americans' recommendations?

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 Guidelines:

  • 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, 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, Dietary Assessment of Major Trends in U.S. Food Consumption, 1970-2005, tells a similar story that Americans are not making much progress in improving what they eat.

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. 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? (below) and "Insidious Consumption: Surprising Factors That Influence What We Eat and How Much".

Could Behavioral Economics Help Improve Diet Quality for Nutrition Assistance Program Participants?

Additional information about ERS research activities on behavioral economics and healthy food choices is available under the topic Behavioral Economics.