Dieting in decline as healthier foods take spotlight

Posted by Isobel Drake on 23rd June 2008

Eating “better for you” foods rather than dieting appears to be the weapon of choice against the battle of the bulge, according to The NPD Group, a leading market research firm.

NPD reports that the percentage of American adults on a diet has decreased by 10 percentage points since 1990, while the percentage of Americans eating healthier foods has increased. “While dieting for both women and men remain huge markets, they are not growing markets,” says Harry Balzer, Vice President of The NPD Group, and author of Eating Patterns in America. “The desire to lose weight really was a 90s trend. Today consumers appear to be making healthier food choices.”

NPD’s National Eating Trends data finds that at least once in a two-week period, over 70 percent of Americans are consuming reduced fat foods, and over half of them are eating reduced calorie, whole grain or fortified foods. In addition to these foods, other “better for you” foods consumed include diet, light, reduced cholesterol, reduced sodium, caffeine free, sugar free, fortified, organic, and low carb varieties. The average American, according to National Eating Trends, has at least two “better for you” products a day.

The growth in popularity of organic food was identified by the study, with 21.8% of consumers having bought organic products in the past fortnight – markedly higher than figures of five years ago.

Healthy eating to consumers today tends to boil down to basic mathematics, says Balzer, who has been tracking consumers’ food consumption behavior for 30 years. “A generation ago it was about subtracting bad things from your diet, but today healthy eating is more a matter of addition and subtraction,” he suggests.

More consumers are looking to add whole grains, dietary fiber, omega-3 fatty acids, antioxidants, and probiotics, according to the NPD Dieting Monitor, which examines top-of-mind dieting and nutrition-related issues facing consumers. Awareness of these nutritional food elements continues to grow. For example, in 2005 36 per cent of consumers surveyed said they were trying to get more omega-3 fatty acids in their diets, and the most recent NPD Dieting Monitor shows that number increasing to 46 per cent.

The ongoing concern about health appears to be helping as recent U.S. government studies confirm obesity leveling off and childhood obesity stabilizing. Australia, meanwhile, has reportedly taken the title of ‘world’s most obese nation’, as Australian consumers struggle to maintain healthy eating patterns.

Even with concerns about the US economic downturn, eating healthy still remains top-of-mind with consumers. According to a recent NPD Fast Check Survey on economic conditions, adults who identify themselves as financially worse-off compared to last year, said that eating healthy still had the greatest impact on the food and beverages their household selects. Saving money ranked a close second.

With saving money and healthy food the top two priorities restaurants could be expected to face tough times in the coming months. A Food Marketing Institute study last month found 91% of consumers believed that they ate healthier food at home than when dining out. As the average restaurants meal has, on average, been found to be 2.5 times more expensive that home cooked meals it is imperative that the restaurant industry continues to improve the perception of the health content of their meals or risk losing customers, particularly in the current economic climate.