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Weight watchers looks to feast on Atkins defectors

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Weight Watchers International Inc. is hoping to reel in U.S. dieters disillusioned with low-carbohydrate plans like Atkins, though it remains to be seen if its new program will revitalize battered profits and membership rolls.

"We are seeing all sorts of people, and more and more of them are people who have tried one low-carb diet or another," Eliot Glazer, Weight Watchers vice president of marketing, said in an interview. Yet whether more of these so-called low-carb refugees find a home at Weight Watchers is another question. The Woodbury, New York, company on Thursday said profit fell in the second quarter while acknowledging the low-carb craze may not be ebbing as quickly as it had forecast.

CEO Linda Huett told investors during a conference call on May 11 she expected to see a growing number of low-carb refugees. Two days later itsstock hit a two-year low of $31.83.

High-protein, low-carbohydrate regimens like the Atkins and South Beach diets have generated a massive following among weight-conscious U.S. consumers, though the craze has leveled off after peaking in January, said Harry Balzer, vice president at market research firm The NPD Group.

About 7 percent of adult Americans now follow some kind of low-carb diet, down from a high of 9 percent, Balzer said. Yet attendance at Weight Watchers meetings in North America declined in the past quarter, spurring the company to narrow its profit forecast for the year.

In the face of such membership declines, Weight Watchers hopes its new initiative will boost attendance by attracting dieters who are weary of shunning foods like bread and pasta.

Atkins Chief Marketing Officer Matt Wiant said because of its meetings format, Weight Watchers will be a haven for dieters who need social reinforcement to lose weight. He added that Atkins' own research showed that Weight Watchers' plan was not seen by consumers as being as effective as low-carb.

"They are not turning to Weight Watchers for their nutritional brilliance," Wiant said.


Copyright 2004 NYP Holdings, Inc. All rights reserved.

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