Americans are always looking for advice on how to eat, and someone is always there to offer it.
In 1978, the country was treated to the Scarsdale diet and its 500 calories a day. Three years later, the Beverly Hills diet said go hog-wild for fruit. The early '90s brought a low-fat bonanza — along with the “New Diet Revolution” of Dr. Robert Atkins, though, of course, Atkins invented his low-carb strategy in 1972.
In time the weight-loss industry has grown to a $40 billion-a-year giant, according to Marketdata, a Tampa, Fla., research firm.
But are Americans finally tiring of short-term solutions? According to a new study from research group TNS NFO, just 9 percent of Americans say they are on a diet, though another third say they are on an eating program. Nearly 60 percent of Americans aren’t doing either, according to the data.
What more than 80 percent of Americans are doing is learning to leave some kind of food or ingredient out of their diets.
“It’s becoming part of everyday eating patterns,” says TNS NFO vice president Keith Holzmueller.
Still, an awful lot of the country is simply doing what it wants. A related study by research group Mintel found that more than 60 percent of Americans eat whatever foods they like, regardless of calories. More than half check calories and fat on food labels, yet nearly half also believe that they overeat.
Is the country suffering from diet fatigue?
Low-carb — whether Atkins, South Beach or other curiously concocted efforts — is obviously the current craze. TNS NFO found low-carb regimens attracted the greatest number of obese followers, but low-carb adherents weren’t necessarily happy about it. Nearly four in 10 were “uncommitted” to low-carb, more than low-fat and low-calorie dieters; and only 42 percent of dieters had a positive opinion of low-carb, lower than for other diet options.
'Finally over the revolution'
And while 25 percent of all adults were limiting their carbs, 45 percent were limiting their fat, more than any other ingredient.
"The low-carb diet seems to be fading out," says Erin Ashley Smith, a consumer-goods analyst at Argus Research.
There are two ways to read all this. Either the country has grown weary of acute dieting — the extreme restrictions that yield short-term results (8 pounds in 10 days!) but don’t do much for long-term health and weight loss — or, in a bit of positive spin, Americans are learning to incorporate diet recommendations into their daily lives. Or perhaps both.
“I think we’re finally over the revolution period and we’re ready to settle down to day-to-day existence,” says nutrition expert Keith Ayoob, associate professor of pediatrics at Albert Einstein College of Medicine. “The fads don’t work.”
Certainly, makers of the $1.3 billion worth of lower-carb products sold in the past year are banking on the current love of low-carb to endure.
They have had a good year: 367 new reduced-carb products were introduced by the end of February, according to Mintel, nearly as many as were unleashed into stores in 2003.
Yet growth in the category seems to be slowing. In the 13 weeks ending July 10, $523 million in “carb conscious” products were sold in U.S. stores, excluding Wal-Mart, according to ACNielsen LabelTrends. Sales from April to July were up 20 percent, while sales in the January-April period jumped 121 percent.
But many of the larger food companies aren't creating these products simply to appeal to carb watchers.
Beyond the carb count
After introductions of low-fat product lines, like SnackWells, fizzled in the 1990s, the new round of products often are created as brand extensions of popular lines — like Kraft's A.1. CarbWell sauce and Post CarbWell cereals, introduced this May.
New products are also going beyond just carb counts — on the assumption that shoppers are checking ingredient labels for sugar and fat content as well. Coke's C2 and Pepsi Edge were both launched with a pitch that went beyond just carbs. Starbucks' new Frappucino Light uses sugar substitute Splenda to cut more calories than carbs. General Mills' new "Carb Monitor" line, attached to brands like Betty Crocker and Pillsbury, also highlights the products' low-fat and low-cholesterol qualities.
After years of being told to watch fat, then cholesterol, then carbs, a more nuanced nutrition message may be emerging. "People are now beginning to look at what's in the product, I think, more than they were," Smith says.
After much hand-wringing, the carbohydrate-friendly corner of the food industry seems to be on the mend. Sara Lee reported a 20 percent jump in profits last quarter. Even Kellogg’s second-quarter cereal sales were up 2 percent.
Weight Watchers, meanwhile, reported sluggish earnings last week, saying fewer people were walking through its doors.
None of which indicates diets are dead. The late Dr. Atkins lingers with two entries on the New York Times bestseller list, though the No. 5 slot last week was occupied by “Atkins for Life” — more a how-to on long-term maintenance than a specific diet.
"I don't think people are giving up on dieting as an activity," says Marketdata's John LaRosa. "They're just looking for what will work for them at a reasonable cost, and they're looking for simplicity and ease of use."
No simple solutions
In one sense, this is what nutritionists have long hoped for. The notion has long endured that healthy living is just a simple plan away. (Many of those plans include a near-magical pill or tonic or, ahem, supplement. All sold for a reasonable price.)
In the 1860s, British undertaker William Banting composed his “Letter on Corpulence,” effectively the first low-carb diet. It caused a frenzy on both sides of the Atlantic. Picking up the pace a decade later, John Harvey Kellogg began his lengthy series of diet proposals -– some of which (cereals) have endured far better than others (managing one’s bowel movements).
After all, we all like to think we’re doing something to get healthy, even if that amounts to sheepishly shrugging our shoulders as we clear out the cookie aisle. It helps to explain why many modern diets — notably the low-carb regimens — include long-term “maintenance” phases. But nutritionists worry that even those phases keep dieters focused on leaving out specific ingredients, rather than just eating less of a balanced diet.
“Some of the maintenance phases are probably still a little too restrictive,” says registered dietician Lola O’Rourke, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. “There’s the big schism between what people think they’re doing and what they’re actually doing.”
Messages on how to eat — and how to lose weight — remain a muddle. The federal government's food pyramid, currently being revised, has long been criticized for its recommendation of up to 11 daily servings of grains. The advisory panel working on the changes suggested this week that Americans eat more fruits, vegetables and fiber. (Atkins Nutritionals, which oversees its namesake diet empire, proposed its own alternative pyramid, with protein accounting for the biggest share of portions.)
Or consider the two Philadelphia studies, released in May, that evaluated low-carb plans against standard low-fat diets. A six-month study by the Veterans Affairs showed better weight loss with low-carb, while a yearlong study by a University of Pennsylvania researcher showed little difference between the two methods. Atkins proponents took the data as a vindication; critics said the results deflated any claims of low-carb diets.
Meanwhile, two-thirds of Americans remain overweight or obese.
"It's almost like information fatigue," Ayoob says. "The confused consumer ends up doing nothing."