Gluttons For Diets

With the low-carb fad on the wane, Americans are weighing their options

September 28, 2005|By DAN THANH DANG | DAN THANH DANG,SUN REPORTER

THE FIRST TIME DEBORAH FISHER WENT ON A DIET was at age 7.

She doesn't remember what kind of diet it was; she just remembers being chubby. Since then, the 52-year-old Columbia nurse has tried practically everything to lose weight in her lifelong battle against the bulge.

There was the Stillman Quick Weight Loss Diet, an earlier version of the Atkins low-carb phenomenon. The Carnation Instant Breakfast meal-replacement shakes. The Cabbage Soup Diet. The Grapefruit Diet. Don't forget Ayds chocolate or butterscotch chews, little cubes taken with tea before a meal to curb the appetite.

Then there was some variation of the drug fen-phen and, of course, she tried the other low-carb fad, the South Beach Diet.

"Any diet will help you lose weight in the beginning, but the problem is you can't sustain that loss over time," Fisher said. "So you start eating again and put even more weight back on, only to diet again. You bounce from diet to diet to diet looking for the magic pill.

"It feels like [Americans] keep going around and around and around searching for the easy fix."

The American public is still looking.

Unlike a couple of years ago when it seemed like everyone was on Atkins, or knew someone who was on Atkins, dieters haven't yet glommed onto any particular fad this year.

With the popularity of low-carb dieting on the wane since last year -- leader Robert C. Atkins died in 2003 and his old company went bankrupt in August -- weight-loss companies are scrambling to fill the void.

Could the next diet fad be based on a low-glycemic index, a good carb-bad carb rating system that's getting buzz lately and is being touted by NutriSystem Inc.? Might it be based on the European conceit that French Women Don't Get Fat, a claim made in a new book by Mireille Guiliano, the president and chief executive of Veuve Clicquot? Or the idea that consuming smaller meals several times a day is the key, according to fitness giant Curves International's new diet program and fitness trainer Jorge Cruise in his new book, The 3-Hour Diet?

"It's rare for any one trend in the diet industry to last for any longer than a year," said John LaRosa, research director for Marketdata Enterprises Inc., a Tampa, Fla.-based independent research firm that has tracked the diet industry since 1989.

"Atkins was really an atypical trend that lasted longer than anyone thought. I don't know if there will be another Atkins. But human nature being what it is, people will always look for the easy way out.

"People are waiting for that next big thing in the diet world."

Some hefty figures

It's anyone's guess what that will be, but what is clear is that consumers spent $46.3 billion last year on products and programs to help them trim those extra pounds, according to Marketdata. The diet industry is expected to grow to $48.6 billion this year and nearly $61 billion by 2008, figures boosted by the fact that obesity rates have increased by more than 60 percent among adults over the past decade. Today, some 59 million adults qualify as obese, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Judi Flaherty cringed when she thought about all the diets she's tried over the years.

"When I was 18, 5-foot-5 and 119 pounds, I was on a diet," said Flaherty, 57, who is also a Columbia nurse. "I was at a perfectly fine weight, but I was on a diet. I was always on a diet. Two years ago, I finally said, 'OK. Enough.'

"I stopped looking for any fad diets," Flaherty said. "I wasn't willing to risk my health to be thin anymore. I didn't just want to look better; I wanted to feel better. I didn't just want to be thinner. I wanted to be healthy, too."

Dietitians are hoping Flaherty's healthier attitude will catch on across the country, especially while there's a lull in the diet movement.

"I am hoping that people will start focusing on whole foods, high fiber and rich vegetables and fruits," said Nora Lynn Mills, a Baltimore dietitian and spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. "I believe that the things we've been saying all along are ringing true. Practice moderation. Colorful, fun foods are good for you. You need to exercise regularly.

"It's not sexy and it doesn't have a magic-bullet promise, but you'll find that a successful way to stay healthy," Mills said. "I'm hoping that Americans have a different focus right now and that's why nothing has popped up."

Fat chance.

Dieters are just more dispersed in their following these days.

Over-the-counter diet pills were hit hard by the 2003 ban of ephedra and sales plummeted by 32 percent last year, according to Marketdata, but brands like Cortislim, Xenadrine and Trim Spa, the pill hawked by newly slimmed celebrity Anna Nicole Smith, are doing well.

Counting on structure

As the low-carb fad fades, more dieters are returning to structured programs like Jenny Craig, Weight Watchers and LA Weight Loss. Revenue for weight-loss centers is expected to grow 11 percent to $2 billion by 2008.

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