Making a Healthy Choice

By Published on .

Most Popular

Those who want to slim down tend to be more culturally sophisticated than average, preferring highbrow shelter and lifestyle magazines such as Architectural Digest and Art & Antiques.

Diets used to be about deprivation. Dawn Seeds still recalls some of the hard-to-stomach regimens. Freeze-dried fare from Nutri/System reminded her of astronaut food. The cabbage soup diet wasn't realistic. But the Mayo Clinic program, which included such dishes as drained tuna on dry toast, was the worst. “It was torture,� says Seeds. Worse yet, each time she returned to eating normal food, she would regain the pounds she'd lost.

Seeds is among the 51 million people in the United States who are dieting to lose or control their weight. And like so many others, she found that yo-yo dieting, popping diet pills, drinking fitness shakes, and cutting out food groups doesn't help to shed pounds. In a shift, dieting has taken on new meaning, with less emphasis on cutting back and more on taking positive steps to create a healthy, more balanced lifestyle. “The definition of dieting has changed,� says Rachel Levin, senior project director at the NPD Group, a market research company based in Port Washington, New York. “Healthy eating is back.�

Dieters are realizing you can't eat an unlimited number of calories as long as they are fat-free, Levin says, adding that dieters are looking for soy, calcium, and added vitamins. Growth sectors to watch, Levin says, are products that focus on healthy eating as long-term behavior.

The Prepared Foods Division of Nestle USA, which produces Stouffer's Lean Cuisine, is on top of the trend. Its Lean Cuisine commercial features four women walking down a road, discussing what they had for dinner the night before. One says she had microwave popcorn and cold spaghetti. Another had a pint of ice cream. One ate leftover pizza. Then another says, “Well, I had herb-roasted chicken in a rich creamy mushroom sauce with roasted red-skin potatoes, broccoli, and red peppers.� The others look annoyed and envious. The Lean Cuisine motto, “Do something good for yourself,� appeals to the new, health-conscious dieters by suggesting they won't have to sacrifice taste for nutrition, says Roz O'Hearn, director of division and brand affairs for Nestle's prepared foods division.

Who diets varies by gender and increases with age, education, and income. In a national consumer survey of 31,576 people, Simmons Market Research Bureau found that most dieters are female (66 percent). Among women, dieters tend to be between the ages of 55 and 64, white, and college-educated. Women start to consider slimming down in their mid-20s, and the desire grows with age. Men, who don't begin to consider dieting until they reach their 60s, are most likely to diet between 65 and 74. What's more, two out of three dieters hail from rural rather than urban counties. As household size increases, the likelihood that someone is dieting decreases. A Gallup study conducted in 2000 by Multi-sponsor Surveys Inc. shows that dieters have a higher annual household income than non-dieters, with the greatest share bringing in more than $50,000 a year.

Using Easy Analytic software, American Demographics created the accompanying map, which illustrates the national distribution of potential dieters based on data from Simmons. Residents of the counties shaded gold are most likely to diet, while those in areas shaded dark blue are the least likely to diet.

Barbara Barry, vice president of marketing for La-Jolla, California-based Jenny Craig, says she was surprised by how much of California is shaded blue and therefore unlikely to diet, given Jenny Craig's strong presence there. The program's main market consists of females, age 35 to 55, with a household income of $75,000, which skews younger and wealthier than data used to create the map. Florida, which is mostly gold, jibed with her research, which shows it's one of her top markets, particularly Orlando and Miami. The map may reflect an older population, Barry explains. This may be due to the fact that dieters in their 20s and early 30s are less likely to admit they are on a diet, she says, because they are more likely to be on a crash diet to burn fat or curb their appetite. Women in their mid-30s and older, Barry adds, are realizing that a diet can be about living a healthier, more balanced life over the long term.

Despite the stereotype, not all dieters are sedentary. Almost 46 percent of dieters say they exercise regularly, according to the Calorie Control Council, an industry trade association that tracks diet products' sales. Consumer research shows that when dieters are not out exercising, they're at least thinking about trimming down as they leaf through Fitness, Runner's World, and Walking magazines. Those who want to slim down tend to be more culturally sophisticated than average, preferring highbrow shelter and lifestyle magazines, including Architectural Digest, Art & Antiques, and Martha Stewart Living. Dieters are also more likely than average to enjoy poring over recipes in Bon Appetit, Gourmet, or Cooking Light. An almost monastic asceticism is no longer part of the dieter's world. When no one is looking, some indulge in a taste for cheap thrills. They are 31 percent more likely than average to have made a 1-900 call in the past six months.

Yet, not everyone in the $34 billion diet product-and-services market is fighting the battle of the bulge. A growing number of women who buy diet products do not think they need to lighten up. These “balanced women� represent 20 percent of American women, according to a national eating trends study conducted by The NPD Group and HealthFocus Inc., an Atlanta-based market research firm. Ironically, 57 percent of these non-dieting healthy eaters are at their ideal weight, while women who say they're on a diet but confess to not eating healthy tend to be obese, says NPD's Levin.

Some consumers will continue to want quick fixes, whether it's exercise in a can or a pill to curb their appetite. These less committed dieters have attracted the attention of Paddy Spence, chief executive officer of SPINS Inc., a San Francisco-based market research firm that tracks health and wellness products. These dieters tend to engage in one or two diet-oriented activities and are turning to natural dietary supplements to lose weight. Sales of weight loss suppplements at conventional food, drug, and mass-market outlets more than tripled over the previous year, surging 111 percent, to $225 million, in the year ending February 2001, Spence says. Diet companies can reach these people, who are still new to the market, through educational merchandising.

Taking a more balanced, healthful approach to slimming down or maintaining weight gives a dieter the right to indulge now and then. Weight Watchers devotee Angela D'Costa watches what she eats during the week but is more lax during the weekend. At Jenny Craig, the option of taking a day off from the recommended menu is built into the program to meet dieters' wish to have their cake and eat it too. “It's not realistic to say I'm never going to have chocolate again,� says Seeds. “That's not real life.�

Battle of the Bulge

Why dieters say they fail:

I don't exercise enough 50%
I splurge too often on favorite foods 36%
I snack too much 33%
I eat too many high-fat foods 28%
I often eat for emotional reasons 28%
I often overeat at mealtimes 26%
I have trouble eating properly at restaurants 23%
I only watch fat, not calories 19%
I only watch calories, not fat 8%
Source: Calorie Control Council

Mars vs. Venus

When women fail to lose weight, they are more likely than men to blame themselves.

Men Women
Say they need to lose weight 51% 66%
Blame lack of self-discipline for failure to lose weight 28% 41%
Often eat for emotional reasons 16% 36%
Source: Calorie Control Council

What They're Reading

Dieters tend to be more culturally sophisticated than the average magazine reader.

Magazine Index
Prevention 178
Shape 165
Gourmet 157
Ducks Unlimited 143
Conde Nast Traveler 137
SmartMoney 116
Guns & Ammo 100
Cycle World 63
Source: Simmons Market Research Bureau
*An index of 100 is the national average.

For example, dieters are 78 percent more likely to read
Prevention than the average American.

Cause and Effect

Women are dieting less and gaining more.

Source: The NPD Group

In this article: