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A matter of taste? Global survey "weighs" food issues


37% exercise so that they can indulge, British and American women link food and mood; 19% of UAE respondents battle the bulge with herbs or supplements

KUALA LUMPUR — You eat a huge greasy hamburger for lunch then carefully crunch on a few lettuce leaves for dinner. You go for a run and light up that cigarette as you recover. You choose a low-fat meal and wash it down with three beers. Strange? Not really. Perhaps not ideal behaviour... but it is surprisingly normal.

Market research firm Synovate conducted its second global ’Healthy Living’ survey on health, weight control and attitudes to food and exercise, and discovered that, when it comes to food and weight, people are not always logical.

The pizza paradox

Tucking into tacos, nibbling on nuggets and chowing down on chips? More than a third of all respondents across the 12 markets surveyed say they like fast food too much to give it up.

But many make themselves feel better by paying for their actions in other ways, with 37% saying they exercise in order to compensate for other bad habits.

Steve Garton, Synovate’s Executive Director of Media, says, "These attitudes may not make complete sense, but when it comes to food, health and weight management, people are inherently contradictory.

“We did the same survey in late 2007 and it seems people are no less confused about food now than they were then. Not only do people’s attitudes and behaviours conflict across cultures, they also differ within the individuals themselves.”

Indeed, the attitudinal questions posed by the survey were the clincher in realising just how mixed up people can be about food. An overall 55% agreed that they eat what they want, when they want. Yet 71% watch their food carefully and strive to be healthy.

“It all comes back to whether we think of food as pleasure or food as fuel... and it seems that most people vacillate between the two,” said Garton.

This year’s number one fast food nation... (would you like fries with that?)

Everyone knows that the United States of America (US) and the United Kingdom (UK) consume large amounts of fast food. Indeed, last year’s number one fast food nation was the UK, with 45% agreeing that they like the taste of fast food too much to give it up, barely surpassing the US (where 44% agreed). But this year both nations have been resoundingly trounced in terms of fast food addiction...

In a surprise result, a hefty 68% of Bulgarians say they cannot give up their fast food. Stoyan Mihaylov, Managing Director of Synovate in Bulgaria, says the country, which was not part of last year’s survey, is in the grips of fast food passion.

"Compared to mature fast food markets like the US and the UK, Bulgarians still find fast food chains a novelty and, to some degree, quite trendy. There are also limited convenient lunchtime choices in the cities so this is a normal lunch for grab-and-go office workers.

“What’s more, there’s no sign of this consumption slowing down.”

The 2009 results saw the UK and the US draw even, each with 44% agreeing they cannot give up fast food. Greg Chu, Senior Vice President of Synovate Healthcare in North America, says that Americans have a love-hate relationship with tasty and convenient fast food.

"Even while eating fast food, Americans have it in the back of their minds that it’s not the healthiest choice - but that’s not what they are focused on at that moment. The draw is convenience and taste, which is all that really matters when you are hungry and on the go.

“When they notice the weight gain, the easiest strategy to fight it is to stop eating fast food for awhile. Eventually the convenience factor pops up again and away we go on the whole cycle again.”

Least susceptible to the taste of fast food were the Swedes and the Malaysians, each with only one in five people agreeing that they ’like the taste of fast food too much to give it up’.

Tackling the tub

Your jeans must have shrunk in the dryer, right? This moment happens to most of us from time to time (and some of us almost daily), so what strategies do people around the world use to battle their bulges?

The top responses across all 12 markets were increase physical activity (45%), reduce food intake (41%), change types of food eaten (27%), and avoid sugar (26%).

The countries most likely to respond to weight gain with physical activity are the United Arab Emirates or UAE (69%) and China (65%).

Darryl Andrew, CEO of Synovate China, says pure pragmatism plays a large role in this approach.

“In China, people love their food with a passion and, like many cultures, the day is arranged around meal times. Popular greetings still ask if a person has eaten meat or rice that day. In this environment, it’s actually much easier to lose a little weight by moving more. Ceasing to eat as much, or changing the types of food eaten, would interfere with life too much for most Chinese.”

Those who were most likely to tackle tubbiness by reducing food intake were the UAE (56%), Brazil (56%), the US (55%), Canada (53%), Spain and the UK (both 52%).

Synovate UAE’s Qualitative Research Director Adelina Mustata, says people in Dubai and the surrounding area seem to throw everything at any weight gain.

"The UAE is an expat-heavy (pun intended!) population and moving here leads to weight gain for many expats. Here it is famously known as the ’Dubai stone’.

"Several factors contribute to this: lack of movement as there’s practically no walking in Dubai, easy access to outside food since the majority tend to eat out more than at home, and high sugar intake. The Middle East has a very sweet tooth, with carbonated drinks even sweeter here, and sugar present in most fresh juices.

“When they realise what has happened, many expatriates take multiple measures to go back to their original weight,” Mustata said.

A lucky 24% do not experience weight gain, topped by Indians at 53%. But even this can be seen as contradictory, says Monica Gangwani, Research Director for Synovate Healthcare in India.

"This and other Indian findings in the survey can be interpreted in two different ways... either Indians are living a very healthy lifestyle or we are living in a state of denial!

“More than half of all urban Indians believing that their weight does not change suggests denial mode, given the staggering rise in obesity and other lifestyle-oriented ailments the nation is experiencing as it becomes more wealthy,” Gangwani said.

Operation Bikini

Similar to the UAE, Brazil and Spain are two other markets with people who seem to throw multiple strategies at losing weight. Also like the UAE, the motivations for doing so may be more around looking good than being healthy.

“The survey was conducted at the end of winter when it’s getting warmer and people’s thoughts are turning to their upcoming beach holidays and that age-old question - ”how am I going to look in a swimsuit this summer?“ said Julio Vidosa, Managing Director for Synovate Spain. ”Spaniards find renewed enthusiasm for tackling weight issues each spring... you might call it ’Operation Bikini’"

Many Spaniards address their weight issues via exercise and diet but some also said they had tried detox (23%), home exercise equipment (29%) and meal replacement bars or shakes (20%), while a quarter had visited a doctor, dietician or nutritionist to maintain or reduce weight.

Swimsuit issues are year-round for Brazilians. Managing Director of Synovate in Brazil, Manuel Lopes, explains: “When you think Brazil, you think of warm weather and beaches. When people are in swimwear for a large part of the year, they tend to want to stay in shape. People try a variety of weight loss or maintenance techniques to figure out what works best for them.”

With their beach culture, it’s no surprise that 37% of Brazilians weigh themselves once every few days, the highest of all the markets surveyed.

The Bridget Jones effect

When Renée Zellweger, an American actress, signed on to play the very British Bridget Jones in the 2001 movie, the producers may have been making more of a statement than they realised... it turns out the two groups who are most likely to link food to mood, emotionally eating their way through life, are American and British women.

An overall 29% of respondents across all 12 markets agreed ’I tend to eat junk food when I am feeling down’, comprised of 34% women and 24% men. This jumped to 55% of all British women and 54% of their American sisters.

“There is a reason Bridget Jones was - and still is - so popular. It perfectly captures the ongoing battle that British women have with food and mood. The knee jerk reaction to bad news, or even boredom, is often a cup of tea and something sweet to wash it down. Similarly, a bad day can be made a whole lot better with a hefty glass or two of Chardonnay in the evening,” says Jill Telford, CEO of Synovate UK.

The survey also showed that the UK was the biggest drinking nation of the 12 markets surveyed. Twenty-seven percent of Britons admitted to drinking alcohol on a daily or near-daily basis, comprised of 33% men and 21% women.

Additionally, an overall 30% of Brits smoke daily, comprised of 33% women and 27% men.

Chinese takeouts

As China becomes a major world player, its people become more and more exposed to the influences of other cultures - both good and bad.

It’s fascinating to see whether the more ’Western’ health trends will develop and how China will address them. It is a nation that is oft quoted as the ’future’ for tobacco companies, and the Synovate survey showed that 28% of Chinese smoke on a daily basis, comprised of 52% men and only 3% women.

Synovate’s Darryl Andrew said, “China is still a somewhat conservative society and there is definitely a stigma attached to women who smoke. These women will have the image of having low moral standards; making this perhaps similar to the gender ratios of smokers that we would have seen in Western societies prior to the wider acceptance of gender equality.”

Another intriguing Chinese finding showed that 71% of respondents agreed with ’I exercise to compensate for my other bad habits’. This was by far the highest level of agreement, versus an overall figure of 37%.

Andrew says: “Blame it on filial piety, Daoism, ying and yang... Chinese philosophy is all about balance and avoiding excesses. Go too far one way and you need to counter balance it with something else.”

The weighty issue of obesity

Is obesity the Government’s fault? Is it society’s? Who’s to blame?

Most people firmly place the responsibility for obesity with the individual. A quarter of all respondents blame unhealthy food choices and another 23% say it is due to unhealthy food habits, like eating at irregular hours.

“Nearly half of all respondents blame food choices rather than sedentary lifestyles, again bringing us back to the complicated role food plays in our lives,” says Synovate’s Steve Garton.

The third most popular choice was ’genetics’, meaning 18% believe it cannot be helped, while a further 18% think obesity is due to lack of exercise.

Eleven percent nominated ’no self-discipline’ as the reason for the world’s growing obesity issues, with more people in the UK (19%) and the US (17%) saying this than anywhere else.

About the survey
This Synovate survey on healthy living was conducted online, via telephone and face-to-face in February 2009 across 10,300 respondents in twelve market - Brazil (BR), Bulgaria (BG), Canada (CA), China (CN), India (IN), Malaysia (MY), the Netherlands (NL), Spain (SP), Sweden (SW), the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the United Kingdom (UK) and the United States of America (USA). A version of the study was also conducted in Australia.

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About Synovate
Synovate, the market research arm of Aegis Group plc, generates consumer insights that drive competitive marketing solutions. The network provides clients with cohesive global support and a comprehensive suite of research solutions. Synovate employs over 6,700 staff across 62 countries.

For more information on Synovate visit


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