Americans go back to living off the fat of the land

January 02, 1994|By Molly O'Neill | Molly O'Neill,New York Times News Service

There is a distinct possibility that this weekend's renditions of "Auld Lang Syne" evoked such old acquaintances as cigarettes, caffeine and fatty foods for revelers across the land.

Rather than pledging to be perfect and subjecting themselves to an abstemious, healthful, aerobicized life in 1994, more people seem to be indulging in the sybaritic. They're choosing the massage table over the Stairmaster.

This "pleasure revenge," as one trend-watcher calls it, has been making a slight but steady gain in the last several months, as noted by everyone from pollsters and marketers to nutrition experts and health-club executives.

Moreover, this gain is most apparent among the affluent, well-educated population that has been at the core of the health and fitness craze.

"We figured that Americans gained 155 million pounds in 1993," said Milton Lieberman, the senior vice president of marketing for Parade Publications.

A national survey of 2,073 adults by the Mark Clements Research Group for Parade magazine found that in the last two years people chose high-fat snacks more often than lean ones. Chip consumption rose by 6 percent and popcorn dropped by 3 percent.

In 1991, respondents in a similar survey reported an average weight loss of 10 pounds. In 1993, they reported an average gain of 2.1 pounds.

For the first time in 15 years, John C. Norcross, a professor of psychology at the University of Scranton, who studies New Year's resolutions, found that neither losing weight nor stopping smoking was the No. 1 New Year's resolution this year. Instead, people are most concerned with managing personal finances better.

"I am hearing a lot of people give themselves permission not to be perfect," Dr. Norcross said.

Businesses that stand to profit from a less ascetic society tend to read these signs as a backlash against the last decade's relentless beating of the good-health drum.

Representatives of the dairy, beef, pork, sugar, snack-food, fast-food and tobacco industries view the recent surveys, as well as their own increasing sales, with enthusiasm.

"People are starting to loosen up," said Max Green, executive secretary of the Wine and Spirits Guild of America, a trade group in Minneapolis. "The public is no longer overwhelmed by health concerns."

Others, particularly those with a vested interest in health-conscious living, tend to interpret the surveys less as a backlash than as blips in an ever-improving picture of public health.

"There's been a dramatic change toward healthier habits over the last decade," said Mark Bricklin, executive editor of Prevention magazine. "Major health changes don't happen in a straight line."

Manufacturers of low-fat food products and fitness equipment, as well as representatives of diet programs, health spas and addiction-treatment centers, agree.

Has the Fit for Life set hit the outer limits of self-denial? Consider this:

* A recent national telephone poll of 1,250 adults conducted by Princeton Survey Research for Prevention found that the number of people who say they are smokers increased to 30 percent of respondents in 1992 from 25 percent in 1991.

* A national telephone poll of 1,000 adults conducted last summer by the American Dietetic Association found that only 39 percent of the respondents said they were doing everything they could to eat a healthy diet, as opposed to 44 percent the previous year.

* In 1993, HarperCollins printed 450,000 copies of "Eat More, Weigh Less" by Dr. Dean Ornish, the heart specialist whose low-fat regimen has been shown to reverse heart disease. But Simon & Schuster printed 850,000 copies of "Stop the Insanity!" Susan Powter's book about getting off the diet merry-go-round.

* Almost three years ago, McDonald's introduced the McLean Deluxe, a reduced-fat beef patty. Last summer, the company began test-marketing the Mega Mac, a half-pound hamburger served with cheese and sauce.

Is the low-fat society on a bender?

The attitude adjustment -- which trend-watcher Faith Popcorn has labeled "pleasure revenge" -- may have more to do with ennui than esthetics.

"People ate their bran muffins for five years, and nothing changed," said Wendy Kaminer, a public policy fellow at Radcliffe College and the author of "I'm Dysfunctional, You're Dysfunctional" (Vintage, 1992). "They didn't lose weight, they still got fired and they're still unhappy."

Barbara Caplain, a market analyst at Yankelovich Partners in Westport, Conn., agrees. She has conducted an Annual Lifestyle Survey of 2,500 people for the last 23 years.

"I'm seeing people focus more on how they feel today, rather than looking at the long-term benefits of being obedient to the god of good health," she said.

This shift may explain why massage is becoming more popular (( than the Stairmaster.

Owners of 20 gyms and spas across the country have noted the same phenomenon that Joe Barron, founder of the three Definitions personal-training gyms in New York, has seen.

"The same clients who worked out four times a week several years ago are coming in three times a week now," he said. "Twice to work out, once for a massage."

Among the beneficiaries of the more indulgent attitude is the Beef Industry Council of America, a trade group in Chicago. After a decade of slipping sales, said spokeswoman Mary Adolf, "we've seen a significant increase in the amount of beef consumed in restaurants" in 1993 and "expect that growth to translate to increased retail sales" in 1994.

The dairy business is getting fatter, too. Cheese sales reached an all-time high last year. Although low-fat milk outsold whole milk, the sale of high-fat superpremium ice cream jumped by 8 percent.

At the same time, said George Rosenbaum, the chief executive of Leo J. Shapiro & Associates, a Chicago market-research group, "sales of low-fat, salt-reduced, decaffeinated products have slowed."

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