Studies & Numbers

Decade-Long Study Reveals Complex Relationship Between Americans and Plant-Rich Diets

A comprehensive study conducted by Virginia Tech’s Department of Human Nutrition, Foods, and Exercise, spanning over a decade from 2012 to 2022, sheds light on the complex attitudes and behaviors of American adults towards plant-rich diets. Despite acknowledging the health and environmental benefits of such diets, the willingness to adopt them remains limited among the populace.

The research, published in the journal Nutrients, shows a growing recognition of the advantages of plant-based eating habits for both personal health and environmental sustainability. However, this awareness does not fully translate into dietary choices. The study reveals that while a substantial percentage of Americans view plant proteins as healthier compared to animal proteins, the consumption of meat remains prevalent across the country.

“We can’t expect consumers to make sustainable choices if they don’t know the impacts of their purchases”

Katherine Consavage Stanley, the study’s lead researcher, notes in a Virginia Tech release, “US 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.”

A collection of plant based foods
Image courtesy of Vegtech Invest

Analysis of data from the International Food Information Council indicates that despite an apparent double in adherence to plant-rich diets from 12.1% to 25.8% between 2019 and 2022, the majority of Americans continue to prioritize meat in their diets, with an observed increase in red meat consumption from 2020 to 2022. 

The inclination towards plant-rich diets is notably higher among younger generations, with Generation Z and millennials leading the shift. Conversely, older demographics show lesser engagement in these dietary patterns. Interestingly, the study also documented a rise in red meat consumption during the latter years of the survey period, indicating a nuanced and varied approach to dietary preferences across the population.

Sustainability is valued but not prioritized

Sustainability emerges as an important yet not decisive factor in food purchasing decisions. While a significant portion of respondents acknowledged the importance of buying sustainably produced products, actual purchase behavior does not consistently reflect these values. This disconnect points to a broader challenge in aligning environmental consciousness with everyday consumer choices.

The study underscores the critical barrier to sustainable eating: the lack of accessible information regarding the environmental impact of food choices. Most participants expressed difficulty discerning the sustainability of their dietary options, suggesting a gap in knowledge and resources that could guide more environmentally friendly consumption.

earth vegan sustainable consumption
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Widespread lack of knowledge

This study resonates with findings from other research that also highlight a widespread lack of detailed nutritional knowledge and the desire for more information on the environmental impacts of food choices. A study from MyFitnessPal found that while 81% of Americans believe they understand nutrition basics, 91% say they have no idea of their daily intake of key nutrients like protein and sugar. Additionally, a Yale University report revealed that 51% of Americans would eat more plant-based foods if they knew about the environmental impact of their diets. However, 70% rarely discuss this issue, and many say they are not exposed to the topic in the media or in their social circles.

Stanley’s research calls for a collective effort from government bodies, health professionals, and the food industry to bridge the information gap and facilitate a shift towards more sustainable eating practices. She comments, “We can’t expect consumers to make sustainable choices if they don’t know the impacts of their purchases. 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. 

“Too often corporations will place the responsibility on individuals, but Americans need a supportive food and beverage environment to make changes.”

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