Leaving sex, religion and politics out of it, one of the weightiest subjects for Americans is food. Eating, overeating, “healthy” vs. “unhealthy,” hot diets and trends from gluten-free to “cleanses” to the latest Brazilian superfood are topics we as a nation — not to mention the media — can’t get enough of.
We know the stats (courtesy of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention): More than 90 million of us are obese — not merely overweight. (That number is nearly twice as high.) The largest segment of obese people is women 60 and older (42.3 percent). We know what this means in terms of health risks, health care costs, mortality and quality of life. And we know these numbers are not going down.
That’s why I was so interested in the findings of a study released this week by the New Product Development Group, or NPD, a top marketing research organization that’s been tracking Americans’ dieting habits for nearly 30 years, which reported that the percentage of adults on a diet has dropped.
So does this imply that we think we’ve “succeeded” in the weight-loss department, that we have a new definition of “dieting” or that we've just given up?
2012 Dieting Data
For its 27th Annual Eating Patterns in America Report, NPD sent surveys to 2,000 households (for a total of 5,000 individuals). Of the respondents, just 20 percent of adults reported they were “on a diet,” a number that’s down from a peak of 31 percent in 1991. Women show the greatest dip: to 23 percent from 34 percent.
Even more fascinating (to me) was the conclusion that fewer Americans view overweight as unattractive.
According to the study, 23 percent of Americans agreed with the statement “people who are not overweight look a lot more attractive,” a sharp decline from the 55 percent who felt otherwise in 1985.
Says Harry Balzer, vice president of NPD Group and author of the study, “This is one of the biggest changes in our attitudes about health over the last 30 years.”
I also read the 2012 Food and Health Survey: Consumer Attitudes Toward Food Safety, Nutrition and Health, commissioned by the International Food Information Council Foundation, a Washington–based news media resource. While it didn’t specifically query people on whether they were “on a diet,” it did find that 55 percent of Americans are trying to lose weight, which is a significant increase from the 43 percent who were struggling thusly last year. A mere 20 percent reported not doing anything regarding their weight.
(MORE: How to Navigate the Diet Landscape)
Analyzing the Numbers
I wasn’t sure what any of this actually meant, so I put in a call to NPD’s Harry Balzer, who has been collecting and analyzing this data for decades and possibly understands eating trends in America better than anyone.
He started by putting the obesity epidemic into a broader context. “Numbers rise, peak then level off,” he explained. “This is what trends do.” He pointed out that collectively these percentages have more or less stabilized since 2002. “Will it go down? That we don’t know.”
He also explained that the percentage of the population that’s on an “individual-choice diet” (as opposed to a medically supervised one) is basically unchanged over the past 20 years: 17 percent in 1992 compared with 14 percent today.
Boomers, he noted, influence these numbers, but “only because they’re a significant portion of the population. These are universal trends.”
Balzer did point out that as we get older, we’re more likely to go on a diet at some point in any given year. Ten percent of people 10–34 are dieting, he said. That number increases to 16 percent over the next decade of life and jumps to 27 percent among people 65 and older.
I asked him why he thought that was. “Greater need.” Then he repeated the well-known, and despised fact: After age 35, if we don’t do anything to fight it, we will gain one to one and a half pounds every year.
(MORE: 6 Steps to Making Lasting Change)
Do Diets Work?
Maybe my biggest question about all this, I realized, was semantics. How do the groups that research these trends define “diet,” as opposed to “dieting” or “watching what I eat”? So I asked Balzer if, because of its connotations of deprivation and the difficulty to clearly define it, “dieting” might be a bad word to use.
“Possibly,” he said, suggesting that most people have no problem with the definition. “I’ll tell you this: When you ask Americans what kind of diet they’re on, the No. 1 answer — 35 percent — isn’t Weight Watchers or Jenny Craig or gluten-free or low-sugar; it’s 'my own diet.' Why? It’s the easiest to follow. It’s human nature to take the easiest way out, then we color it the way we want, making an excuse when we want to eat at Chipotle.”
Bottom-lining it, I asked him one last question, hoping for some flash of insight or new piece of advice that might help us all: Do diets work?
His answer? An emphatic yes — “if you follow them. We know there are three things you can do about being overweight: Have greater energy expenditure, have less energy consumption or change your attitude. It’s a simple equation, a complex behavior pattern."
We all know the “eat less, exercise more” formula. But I was struck by No. 3. Maybe that’s the data point researchers should study. For better and worse, maybe more and more people are just accepting their enhanced proportions. Which I guess would explain the attitude about finding overweight people less unattractive.