Is a Famine Ahead for the Diet Industry?

According to a survey conducted this month for Fortune, the future of the diet industry is looking a little lean.

The survey, carried out by SurveyMonkey, found that although 77% of Americans say they’re actively trying to eat healthier, only 19% say that they’re “on a diet.” That fits with data from research group NPD, showing that the number of women who say they’re dieting has dropped a full 13 percentage points in the past 20 years.

Weight Watchers has seen sales decline for the past two years and is projecting another weak year for 2015. Nutrisystem, which had skyrocketing revenue only a few years ago, is bringing in 21% less than it was in 2011. Jenny Craig and Medifast haven’t done much better.

Even in the grocery store, frozen diet meals aren’t selling well. Sales of Weight Watchers dinners have dropped by 17% in the past five years; that figure is 11% for the Healthy Choice line and around 25% for Lean Cuisine. There’s little indication things will be turning around, either, with market research firm Euromonitor predicting the category as a whole will dip another 8% in the coming five years.

Weight Loss in America
Does that mean either that Americans don’t need to lose weight — or that they have given up trying?

No, Fortune cautioned when reporting its results. Roughly a third of American adults are obese. But in general, people seem to be choosing fresher foods over “diet” options and looking at holistic health options that balance calorie-counting with exercise.

The American weight-loss industry — still a $64 billion market as of last year — is expanding in areas such as health clubs.

Mandates put in place by the Affordable Care Act have also helped to shift many weight-loss services away from the commercial world and into the medical one, as plans are required to cover some kinds of plans supervised by nurses and doctors.

A More Diet-Savvy World?
But, as one recent incident so painfully illustrated, there are still plenty of people looking for the next so-called miracle diet.

Last week, a journalist revealed that a headline-grabbing study claiming to demonstrate that chocolate can help people to lose weight was simply an elaborate hoax designed to underscore problems in how the media vets scientific information before reporting it.

So how can consumers make smart decisions about diets when they apparently can’t trust so many of the sources reporting on them? The bottom line is that if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Making simple substitutions (a dip made with Greek yogurt, for example, has 67% fewer calories and 88% less fat than most sour cream-based dips) is always a good step. But the bottom line is fresh foods, moderate calorie counts and exercise are the most effective combination for the vast majority of people looking to lose weight.

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