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American Consumers Give $30 Billion a Year to Growing Diet Industry

Posted - Jan. 5, 2004 at 2:20 p.m.



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Jan. 5--If starting a diet is your new year's resolution, chances are you'll burn some serious cash trying to melt away those excessive pounds.

With two out of three Americans being either overweight or obese, dieting is understandably a huge industry. (Yes, pun intended.) Consumers shell out $30 billion a year trying to lose weight, according to eDiets.com.

"It's amazing. We spend so much money, and we are still getting bigger," said Jennifer Stuht, research coordinator for the Center for Human Nutrition at the University of Colorado and the National Weight Control Registry.

Where does all that money go? Here are a few places:

-- There are hundreds of diet books. The two most popular on Amazon.com are "The South Beach Diet: The Delicious, Doctor-Designed, Foolproof Plan for Fast and Healthy Weight Loss," ($14.97); and "Dr. Atkins' New Diet Revolution," ($7.99).

-- There are diet programs like Weight Watchers, which charges $11 a week for in-person meetings or $14.95 a week to participate online, and eDiets.com, in which participants pay $5 a week for access to suggested menus, recommended grocery shopping lists and chat room support for any number of diets.

-- Then there are special diet-branded foods. If you are an Atkins dieter craving taboo carbs like pancakes, you can pay $12.99 for a box of Atkins Quick Quisine pancake mix. Diet snacks like the Atkins Advantage bars and Zone Perfect bars cost about $2 to almost $3 each.

Jenny Craig said its members pay between $70 and $105 a week for its prescribed food, which includes three meals a day and snacks.

But trying to whittle down the pounds doesn't have to take a chunk out of your wallet. Yes, you can spend a bundle on a gym membership that you may use just a couple times, but you can also walk around your neighborhood for free. You can pay subscription fees to diet services or you can call upon your own willpower, again for free.

To be sure, 50 percent of so-called "successful losers" -- 3,000 people in the National Weight Control Registry who have lost an average of 60 pounds and kept it off for five years -- dropped their pounds and maintained their lower weight without any type of formal program, according to the organization's Web site. The most popular form of exercise among registrants is walking.

"You don't have to spend very much money. It's (about) knowledge," Stuht, a researcher for the group, said. "That means understanding how many calories it takes to burn a pound of flesh. That's 3,500."

Losing weight successfully has mostly to do with patience and willpower and little to do with following the hottest new diet trends and loading up on books and special products, said Jay Kenney, nutrition research specialist at the Pritikin Longevity Center in Aventura, Fla., home to one of the popular diets during the 1970s and early 80s. (The Pritikin diet pushes whole grains, beans, non-fat dairy and fatty fish and shuns cheese, butter, fatty animal products and refined carbohydrates.) More than money, you have to invest time to change your lifestyle and maintain a healthy diet and regular exercise regimen, he said.

"When people want to lose weight, they want it to be quick and easy," Kenney said.

"You are not going to control your weight with any quick and easy method."

WHICH PLAN COSTS THE MOST IN A WEEK?

MoneyWise tallied up how much a week's worth of food would cost dieters following three of the nation's most popular diets. We looked at Atkins, in which dieters eat lots of protein, such as meat, eggs and cheese, and very few carbohydrates; The Zone, which is low carb but allows more fruits and vegetables than Atkins; and Weight Watchers, which pushes portion control but does not restrict any food or type of nutrient.

The results were close:

The Zone rang in the most expensive at $119.86. Weight Watchers came in the middle at $96.20. Atkins was the easiest on the wallet at $91.33. 

The Atkins diet was the least expensive because it relies on a few core items such as eggs, beef, chicken and broccoli, rather than a bunch of ingredients you'd rarely use. We estimated weekly beef costs -- for 4 ounces of lean beef strips and two half-pound burgers -- at $5.99, just under the $5.98 that'd be spent on two heads of (good carb) broccoli. Additionally, we estimated chicken to run $2.50 a week; canned tuna, $2.65; and pork chops, $1.88. The Zone turned out to be the most pricey, because it calls for ample amounts of protein, namely fish, which is more expensive than chicken, and fresh fruits and vegetables. Among the most expensive items: ZonePerfect snack bars ($11.83 for seven); melons, which are currently out of season ($7.48 for one honeydew and one cantaloupe); and seafood ($6.94 for cod, scallops and smoked salmon).

Weight Watchers' shopping list had the most ingredients, spanning from faux crabmeat to English muffins. Weight Watchers' weekly costs would have been higher if not for the fact that MoneyWise adjusted prices to account for how many servings were to be consumed a given week and assumed that the remaining food would eventually be eaten (i.e., One corn tortilla was priced at 4 cents, because it came from a pack of 96 that costs $3.99).

While some Weight Watchers participants report that they rely on the company's frozen meals, called Smart Ones, only two of those meals were priced into this one week of eating. At $2.99 a pop, a Weight Watchers dieter would spend more money on these entrees than on preparing meals from fresh food. 

Further survey notes: MoneyWise used menus provided by Atkins Nutritionals, Weight Watchers and from The Zone's Web site, www.zoneperfect.com. With a few exceptions, prices were obtained at the Harris Teeter in the Park Road Shopping Center Dec. 29-30. It was based on a single

person's weekly shopping needs. When possible, store-brand items were chosen over name brands.

Each diet specified items not found at Harris Teeter.

We tracked down ZonePerfect bars at GNC, where they sell for $1.69 each. For Atkins food products, such as the Atkins Advantage Chocolate Shake, we went to Talley's Green Grocery on East Boulevard and found that a pack of four sells for $9.99.

For a Weight Watchers meal that called for a fast-food lunch of a small hamburger and house salad, we went to McDonald's and found that meal for $1.92. And for another Weight Watchers lunch calling for Chinese food, we headed to MuLan De'Lite on East Boulevard for $4.75.

Taxes were not included.

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To see more of The Charlotte Observer, or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.charlotte.com.

(c) 2004, The Charlotte Observer, N.C. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News.

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