November 21, 2001
New Survey: In Wake of September 11th, 1/5 of Americans Turn
To Unhealthy Foods
Some Get Early Start On 'Holiday Eating, But Vast Majority Go On as Usual
- A new survey commissioned by the American Institute for Cancer
Research (AICR) shows that about 20 percent of Americans have made unhealthy
changes in the way they eat in the wake of the events of September 11th. The
survey, conducted exactly two months after the terror attacks on New York
and Washington, sheds light on anecdotal reports about how those events have
Almost 20 percent of those surveyed said they had found themselves eating
more "comfort foods" like mashed potatoes and gravy, fried chicken and
macaroni and cheese. About 13 percent said they had been eating more rich,
hearty foods like steak, stews and lasagna. Sugar cravings are also on the
rise, with 19 percent saying they have been eating more sweet, sugary foods
like desserts and ice cream.
AICR experts warned that such foods tend to be high in fat, high in
calories, and low in much-needed nutrients. These foods also lack the
protective potential of phytochemicals -- natural substances found in plant
foods that have been shown to fight cancer and other diseases.
"Autumn is traditionally a time when Americans transition to heartier meals,
but 'hearty' and 'high in fat' are not the same thing," said Melanie Polk,
RD, Director of Nutrition Education at AICR. "Meals can be satisfying and
healthy at the same time, particularly if they feature larger portions of
vegetables and grains, which satisfy hunger and carry a smaller fat and
calorie payload than meat or cheese."
This advice grows out of an AICR program called the New American Plate that
is geared to help individuals manage their weight and prevent chronic
diseases. The program recommends smaller food portions and making changes in
mealtime proportions such that vegetables, whole grains or other plant foods
make up at least 2/3 of the meal, leaving 1/3 or less for meat, chicken or
Experts Concerned About Long-Term Implications of Unhealthy Eating
Dr. John Foreyt and his colleagues at the Behavioral Medicine Center at
Houston's Baylor College of Medicine study how emotional responses impact
patterns of food consumption. He believes the results of the AICR survey are
dismaying, but understandable.
"It's exactly the response you expect to see," he said. "When we are anxious
or fearful, we fall back to foods we associate with times of lowest stress
-- that is, with childhood.
"But I am shocked that we're still seeing the effects now, over two months
after the attacks."
Both Foreyt and Polk warn that any move toward foods that are higher in fat
and calories should be a temporary one. When such foods make up a
significant part of the diet, they say, serious health implications arise
down the road, including heart disease, cancer, stroke, obesity and
Some Got Early Start on Holiday Eating this Year
Polk is particularly concerned that the timing of the attacks may make it
easier for unhealthy changes in eating behavior to hang around. "Just as our
country is beginning to move on and deal with our grief, the holiday season
begins," she noted.
The holiday season is traditionally a time of indulgence, and, for many,
modest weight gain. Self-imposed rules about diet and exercise are relaxed,
high-fat foods and treats are plentiful, and generous portions are served at
"It appears that about 1/5 of us got an early start on holiday eating this
year," said Polk.
For Majority of Americans, Eating Behaviors Remain Unaffected
Fully 90 percent of Americans said they were eating the same amount of food
they had always eaten. Only four percent of those surveyed said they were
eating more, and six percent said they were eating less.
Snacking, a behavior widely believed to rise in times of stress, has
remained largely unaffected. Only six percent said they were snacking more,
while six percent said they were less likely to eat between meals. Overall,
87 percent of Americans said their snacking behavior has not changed.
A similar 87 percent said they were getting just as much physical activity
as always, while seven percent said they were exercising more, and five
percent said they were exercising less.
Following the attacks, there were oft-repeated assertions about increases in
bar patronage and home alcohol consumption. Yet in the AICR survey, only two
percent of Americans said they were actually drinking more. Nearly six
percent said they were drinking less, and 76 percent said they were drinking
exactly as much as they had before the attacks. (Non-drinkers accounted for
the missing 16 percent.)
Conducted for AICR by International Communications Research (ICR), the
survey involved 1,003 adults, 18 years or older, chosen at random.
Respondents were interviewed by telephone over a five-day period in