Communicating the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2005

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2005, released on January 12, 2005, by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) provide the latest science-based advice to promote health and to reduce the risk for major chronic diseases through diet and physical activity. Released every five years, the 2005 Guidelines have two notable differences: 1) the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee took an evidence-based approach in writing their scientific report; and 2) separate documents were developed for use in policy and communications. The Dietary Guidelines call for health professionals to communicate this advice in useful and consumer-friendly ways to help individuals make wise choices about maintaining a healthful lifestyle and weight. They also charge nutrition educators with the task of relaying the Guidelines to consumers through educational materials and communications.

To help begin to communicate the information in the Dietary Guidelines, HHS and USDA have issued a consumer brochure, Finding Your Way to a Healthier You: Based on the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

Given this call to action, an important question is how can health professionals best communicate the new Dietary Guidelines to increase the likelihood that consumers will act on this valuable advice?

To answer this question, one must begin with consumer research. Basing communications on qualitative research, such as information garnered from focus groups, helps ensure that consumers receive science-based messages as intended and allows health professionals to communicate with consumers, rather than to them. This makes it more likely that consumers will understand the information, find it relevant, and compelling enough to act upon. Appreciating the importance of understanding the consumer and testing messages, the International Food Information Council (IFIC) Foundation has an extensive history producing consumer research. The following findings demonstrate the lessons that have been learned from such consumer research, and can help health professionals communicate dietary guidance effectively.

Speak the same language. Research reveals that the message that nutrition communicators send may not be the message that consumers receive. For example, the Dietary Guidelines Alliance, a partnership of public and private organizations dedicated to providing positive and simple messages to help consumers achieve healthful diets and active lifestyles, commissioned focus groups to test consumers’ understanding of the term “energy balance.” Health professionals often use this term to describe the concept of managing weight by consuming the same amount of calories as the amount burned through physical activity.

However, consumers do not interpret “energy balance” as a means to manage their weight. Instead, they associate “energy” with feeling energetic or having energy to do things, rather than with “calories.” In addition, they define “balance” far more broadly than what one eats or does to maintain weight; and they include a person’s mental or psychological state as part of their definition.

The bottom line is that health professionals must verify nutrition messages with the intended audience to make sure they are speaking in a language that consumers clearly understand.

Make advice specific, manageable, and actionable. Participants in consumer research said that generalized health messages make sense to them intellectually, but that these messages often are not informative or compelling enough to put them into practice in their already overburdened lives. In addition, when faced with a set of guidelines, consumers may feel overwhelmed because they mistakenly believe that they should implement them all at once.

Instead of giving consumers general advice such as “eat less fat,” provide specific, practical, easy-to-implement tips. A good example is this tip from the Dietary Guidelines, 2005 consumer brochure: “In a restaurant, opt for steamed, grilled, or broiled dishes instead of those that are fried or sautéed.” Also, reassure consumers that making changes in small, manageable steps is a sure path toward reaching their goals.

Although some consumers are more informed about nutrition than others, they still have trouble matching general guidelines with specific foods. So, when relaying the Dietary Guidelines’ recommendation to “eat at least three ounces of whole-grain cereals, breads, crackers, rice, or pasta every day,” always provide specific examples of whole-grain foods and their serving sizes. USDA’s revised Food Guidance System, an educational tool based on the Dietary Guidelines and scheduled for release in the coming months, will help consumers understand and apply the Dietary Guidelines.

Take a positive approach. Consumer research shows that people often experience negative emotions including guilt, worry, anger, fear, and helplessness in response to nutrition messages. In addition, they don’t want to follow nutrition guidelines just because someone else tells them to.

Testing messages with consumers can help alleviate these negative feelings and increase the likelihood that consumers will adopt the recommended behaviors. Rather than telling consumers what they can’t have, find ways to help them fit appropriate portion sizes of their favorite foods into a balanced, healthful eating plan and make sure to deliver information with sensitivity.

Personalize the advice. As access to health and nutrition information continues to expand, consumers increasingly report that they need personalized dietary guidance, tailored to them and their lives, not a one-size-fits-all strategy. To help someone adopt new behaviors in line with the Dietary Guidelines, nutrition communicators should provide options, flexibility, and “how-to” advice that applies to the individual, rather than the general population. Take into account common lifestyle obstacles, such as a lack of time and the need for convenience.

Communicate in harmony. The IFIC Foundation research, as well as quantitative research by the American Dietetic Association, indicates that consumers feel overwhelmed by what they perceive as a bombardment of confusing and contradictory nutrition messages and so, are tuning out these messages. The Internet increases consumers’ access to health information, but it makes it more challenging to identify credible sources of information.

To clear up consumer confusion, it’s vital that health communicators across all disciplines speak with one voice about dietary guidance to the largest possible audience. An important way to achieve this goal is for parties that communicate with consumers—including the government, health professional organizations, the food industry, academicians, journalists, and nutrition educators—to partner on their communications to send consumers clear and consistent nutrition messages, such as the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Individual health communicators also play an important role by conveying consistent information during individual counseling and other educational contacts with consumers.

How Can Health Professionals “Consumer Test” Communications?

Health professionals can obtain a wealth of feedback from consumers through formal research techniques such as focus groups, in-home observations, and surveys. Informal channels, however, also provide valuable insights. Discuss issues and ideas with friends, family members, or co-workers who are similar to your target audience; or gather input on topics for wellness classes or a draft brochure from clients while they sit in your waiting room.

Listening to and learning from consumers themselves are keys to crafting effective communications that will help consumers reap the benefits of better health from the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2005.

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DIETARY GUIDELINES OVERVIEW

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2005 report identifies 41 key recommendations grouped into nine general topics:

  • Adequate nutrients within calorie needs
  • Weight management
  • Physical activity
  • Food groups to encourage
  • Fats
  • Carbohydrates
  • Sodium and potassium
  • Alcoholic beverages
  • Food safety

To access the report and the accompanying consumer brochure, Finding Your Way to a Healthier You: Based on the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, go to http://www.healthierus.gov/dietaryGuidelines

To access common questions and answers about the new Guidelines, go to http://www.ific.org/publications/qa/dgaqa.cfm

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More Information and Tools

To view the IFIC Foundation consumer research, go to http://www.ific.org/research.
To access Tools for Effective Communications, go to http://www.ific.org/tools.