By Jon Bonné
msnbc.com

There’s light at the end of the Twinkie. Americans’ collective weight gain leveled off in the past year after half a decade of us all getting fatter, according to a new national survey of eating habits. Consumers appear to be focusing on healthier foods and are more worried about fats and additives.

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The results come from the NPD Group’s annual “Eating Patterns in America” study, publicly released Tuesday. The study tracked how many Americans were overweight based on the Body Mass Index (BMI). The percentage of overweight Americans has always grown, according to the study, and rose from 50 percent in 1998 to 56 percent in the 2002 study. This year revealed a drop to 55 percent — hardly a sign of impending twiggishness, but possibly a hint that Americans are hearing the gospel about healthy eating.

“It’s a surprise,” says NPD vice president Harry Balzer, who has authored the study for nearly 20 years. “The one thing we could count on was Americans were going to get heavier.”

Balzer is less sure about why obesity seems to have leveled off. In part, he believes it may be that we’re finally absorbing years of nutrition labels (federally mandated since 1994), food guidelines and recommendations like the “Five a Day” program for vegetables.

While fewer households were interested in dieting, 35 percent of Americans say they carefully plan to eat nutritious meals, the study found, a slight increase. And the number of “Naturalists” — people who seek out natural cereals, home cooking and more fresh foods — now accounts for one-fifth of all households, up from 15 percent three years ago. NPD, a marketing firm, compiles the study for clients like food manufacturers and sellers.

More people are also checking their food labels frequently, hoping to avoid too much fat, cholesterol or sugar: 53 percent now say they check, up from 51 percent last year. And two-thirds of Americans say they are exercising at least once a week.

Eating at home again
Still, it’s not entirely clear where the healthy habits came from. The study found little change in the number of meals made from scratch or ready-made meals prepared at home. At the same time, the study showed a third straight year of decline in visits to restaurants, though data was compiled earlier this year and a subsequent NPD study found chain restaurant visits bumped up again in late summer.

Though many Americans still bring home takeout food, it’s a trend that peaked in 2000. The focus on healthy eating might be partly responsible, since it’s almost always easier to eat prudently when we cook for ourselves — in part because restaurant portions can be massive. Balzer’s research shows 38 percent of all food tonnage is consumed at restaurants, even though they account for just 22 percent of Americans’ meals. “So you know those meals are large,” he says.

A lagging economy explains part of the move away from restaurants as families tried to save where they could. But restaurants are also starting to shift the way they package their meals.

While the top two items sold in restaurants were still burgers and fries, perennial favorites that they are, retailers have also moved to include new, healthier food items in meals like salads and fruit. Balzer sees that as a response to consumers’ desires to eat fresh food without having to store it at home. Rather than let lettuce or bananas go uneaten and spoiled, we may be paying to let restaurants worry about freshness. “I think the battle right now in the restaurant industry is from being the microwave, or our food preparer, to being our refrigerator,” says Balzer.

The new study results come on the heels of another study of American obesity based on BMI data, in which the RAND Corporation found the number of extremely overweight Americans was soaring. The RAND study tracked data until 2000 and showed similar increases in fat that were tracked in previous NPD surveys. To that end, Balzer is skeptical that the reversal of our bulging trend will hold, since one year of good news is hardly enough to let the scale gather dust. But he is optimistic the message about American nutrition might finally be sinking in.

“The weight gains in this country had to come to an end,” he says. “We could not have people exploding.”

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