I heard a blurb on the radio on the way to work one day that stated: Millennials are the first generation to be more overweight than their parents and to spend more on food than clothing.
Just thinking of all the posts I run across on social media on any given day depicting intense workouts, elaborate smoothie bowls, and endless avocado toast pics, I wondered if and how the weight part is really true. So in trying to figure out why this may be the case, I tried to identify some patterns of the Millennial generation in general.
First, the Census Bureau estimates that there are 73 million young adults, 18 to 34 years old, referred to as Millennials, comprising the largest population group in the last three decades. Millennials are the children of the Baby Boomers and the successors of Generation X. Apparently this population is the most studied generation in history, yet I found conflicting data when looking at the stats.
A study published in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology found that adults age 30 are so unhealthy they are equivalent to their parents or grandparents at age 45. They are more likely to have high blood pressure and diabetes and 20 percent more likely to be obese. One-third of the ages 16 to 27 years old are overweight or obese.
On the flipside, according to a Goldman Sachs survey (2013) wellness is a daily, active pursuit for the average Millennial. They are exercising more, eating smarter, and smoking less than previous generations. They are using apps to track training data, and online information to find the healthiest foods. So why the extra weight? Perhaps it’s where they are getting some of their nutrition information. I also wonder how often they are eating out.
Millennials seem passionate about their food and more than half of them eat out at least once a week (according to the Outlook on the Millennial Consumer 2014 report). I think it is even more, considering that a report by the Food Institute reveals Millennials spend 44 percent of their food dollars at restaurants. To give a comparison, Baby Boomers only spend 40 percent. I did an informal survey of Millennials at work and based on my small sampling, an average of 7.7 meals per week come from outside the home. This makes portion and calorie control very difficult. You can only truly know what is in your food if you are cooking it.
In addition, a 2017 Food & Health Survey reveals that Millennials could not name a specific food that was health promoting. So while they are looking for better and sustainable food sources, as well as fewer additives, they have a hard time identifying—for instance—a food benefiting heart health. Instead they reported that they sought out food that was “organic,” “natural,” or “non-GMO” at the grocery store and even in restaurants. In truth, organic junk food is still junk food, and calories from organic food can still cause weight gain if eaten in excess. This is where the adage “too much of a good thing” applies, meaning the calories can add up no matter how good or nutritious the food appears to be. Portions still need minding. Slapping a “natural” label or other food claim on a product does not make it better for you.
It seems Millennials are just as conflicted as the data I found on their habits. Although the survey indicates they are reading food labels, choosing beverages with few additives, and are more focused on what’s good to eat or drink rather than avoiding what’s bad to eat or drink, a surprising 60 percent report that the mixed nutrition web messages they receive causes them to doubt the choices they make. This misinformation may be a contributing factor to their elevated weight. An expert can hardly sift through all this information, let alone a lay person.
The main principles of eating well are the same across the lifespan whether you are a Gen Y, X, or a Baby Boomer. Concentrate on evidence-based healthy diet patterns of minimally processed plant foods, high in whole foods, such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes, and low in saturated fats, sodium, added sugars, and refined grains. This along with certain habits, such as cooking at home more, being active, getting enough sleep, managing stress, drinking water, and avoiding alcohol and tobacco are what helps you approach healthier living. Contrary to popular bloggers’ claims, animal protein is not king, carbs are not evil, and saturated fat is not healthy.
Lela Iliopoulos is a Registered Dietitian and Certified Diabetes Educator and an expert in nutrition therapy, health promotion, and education. She is passionate about impacting nutritional health through the practical application of science-based information.