Diets lose their appeal: Has down-sizing craze reached the down side?

January 17, 1994|By Ted Gregory | Ted Gregory,Chicago Tribune

This time of year, bloated or lumpy from too much holiday high life, many Americans look into their mirrors, shake their heads and turn away.

They vow invincible willpower against further indulgence in cream cheese taco dip and double-fudge brownies.

At least that's the way the script is supposed to read. Reality looks a bit different these days.

There is growing evidence that Americans are getting fed up with dieting. Certainly they are getting fatter, health statistics show. Barraged with information about eating nutritiously, many nonetheless grab the french fries and hold the guilt.

In short, experts say, many people find a healthy lifestyle too arduous, confusing and boring.

Meanwhile, the overweight have turned their condition into a political cause.

The number of Americans who are dieting is stagnating, studies show, and weight loss centers are smarting from a lean 1993.

Some suggest that baby boomers are the reason, that they are less worried about svelte perfection as they enter their 40s and 50s, a time when the swelling in one's girth is accepted.

"People are just saying: 'The hell with it. I'm going to eat whatever I feel like,' " says John LaRosa, spokesman for Marketdata Enterprises Inc., a research firm for the weight loss market in Valley Stream, N.Y.

Federal government studies indicate that 34 percent of the population was overweight in the past decade, up from 27 percent in the 1970s.

In addition, an American Dietetic Association survey taken last fall showed that declining percentages of respondents in all demographic groups said they are doing all they can to achieve good nutrition.

"People are interested in good nutrition, and they say they're interested in it," says Jodie Shield, a registered dietitian and spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association, "but they're not really doing anything about it."

The statistics support Ms. Shield's assessment of the calorically challenged.

The association's survey showed that in 1993, 82 percent of Americans -- compared with 79 percent in 1991 -- rated nutrition as moderately important.

Dramatic gains in awareness were made among young males and women, the study concluded.

For three years, the number of people who will embark on post-holiday diets has leveled off at 5 million a year and is expected to stay at that level in 1994, according to Calorie Control Council, an Atlanta association representing the low-calorie, low-fat and diet food and beverage industry.

Experts say that stagnation is a sign that people are moving away from the fad of dieting.

Meanwhile, Weight Watchers meeting attendance and sales of frozen foods fell by double-digit percentages this fall. Jenny Craig's stock slumped to new lows in early December, hit by attendance drops similar to those experienced by Weight Watchers.

And three days before the year closed, the Federal Trade Commission disciplined three commercial diet centers, Physicians Weight Loss Center of America Inc., Diet Center Inc. and Nutri/System Inc., charged with unsubstantiated weight-loss claims, misleading testimonials and false advertising.

Northwestern University psychologist John Lyons drew the baby boom connection.

"I think there is some cultural backlash to our societal urge to live forever," Mr. Lyons says. "It's very difficult to remain compliant to any sort of exercise regimen. This really sounds like a realization of one's limits and an acceptance, something you'd see in the 40s-to-50s age group.

"Maybe you just accept your lot and do the best you can."

People in the American Dietetic Association's survey said nutrition is as bland to the taste buds as a long conversation with Mister Rogers is to the attention span. Respondents also said they don't have time to keep track of their diets, and people are confused.

One week, they are told to use margarine freely because it contains polyunsaturated fats and no cholesterol. A few days later, different research indicates that polyunsaturated fats may promote cancer. All fat should be eliminated from the diet, one theory states, but the truth is that fats should account for up to 30 percent of most people's diets, other experts say.

At the same time, support groups for overweight people are springing up all across the United States.

Mary Jo Haag of Winfield, Ill. finally got tired of dieting, even though it worked for her decades ago when she modeled swimsuits. She said she could recall feeling run-down and crabby. The last time she went on a diet was 15 years ago.

Since 1983, she has been exercising regularly at a health club. Now she works out about four days a week and rides horses on weekends. She says she uses more natural foods in cooking and is cutting fat from her diet, but she acknowledged that "eating well is a job in itself."

"I feel sorry for people who go on diets," she says, conceding that she may be a bit heavier but much happier than in her modeling days. "I just think they are living miserably to try and fulfill a picture of being perfect."

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