Many people pledge to get fit and lose weight as part of their New Year's resolution. The start of the year sees memberships of gyms and slimming clubs soar, as well as sales of meal replacement diets and low-fat and low-calorie foods. Manufacturers have spotted the demand for diet foods and are keen to keep the slimmers on track. Jasmin Rashid investigates:

Americans are not the only ones getting fat on a diet of fastfood and snacks. Convenience and fastfood, initially popular in the US, are growing trends in Europe - and so too are their effects. The population of the UK suffers from one of the most serious weight problems in Europe, and forecasts suggest there will be no reduction in the numbers of those deemed overweight. More than half the UK population is now overweight, and more than 20% of women and 17% of men are clinically obese. Figures from the National Office of Statistics predict that by 2005, 24% of UK women and 18% of UK men will be clinically obese.

Men
Overweight 
Obese 
Greece
26.7 
Greece
8.7 
Spain
24.2 
Finland
8.6 
Germany
23.2 
Luxembourg
8.5 
Luxembourg
22.6 
UK
8.1 
Sweden
22.2 
Portugal
7.9 
UK
21.4 
Spain
7.8 
EU Average
19.5 
EU Average
6.1 
Source: European Commission, Eurobarometer 1996
Women
Overweight 
Obese 
Portugal
21.2 
Portugal
9.4 
Greece
17.8 
Greece
13.0 
UK
17.8 
UK
10.1 
Finland
17.6 
Belgium
8.3 
Spain
15.7 
Finland
8.2 
Austria
15.6 
Luxembourg
7.1 
EU Average
14.4 
EU Average
6.9 
Source: European Commission, Eurobarometer 1996

So what is to be done? The UK Government has not shied away from the issue. A Department of Health spokesman spoke of commitment to reducing the rising levels of obesity, adding: "As part of our [the government's] action plan to tackle heart disease, we have introduced a pilot project to introduce fresh fruit and vegetables, particularly in low-income areas." But will this make a serious dent in the figures? It is unlikely that trends in eating habit will be reversed to any great extent. This is where food companies can step in.

Guideline Daily Amounts Women Men
Calories 2,000 2,500
Fat 70 g 95 g
There are various food-based options open to consumers, dependent on their school of thought. There are meal replacements, such as SlimFast products, which are widely available and supported by advertising. There are low-fat and reduced calorie versions of everyday convenience foods, for those who examine ingredients lists. And then there are fad diets.

Kellogg: helping the nation help itself?

As well as product offerings, the UK has already seen attempts by companies, such as Kellogg, to help the nation shed some of its excess pounds. Kellogg 2 Week Challenge was issued last year, whereby consumers were encouraged to eat cereal for breakfast and as a replacement for one other main meal. Kellogg came under fire from dietary experts - some of whom labelled the campaign irresponsible, and consumer media - such as the television programme Watchdog. Despite the criticism, Kellogg said it had worked closely with nutritional experts to develop its Challenge as "a way to kick-start a healthy lifestyle."

Kellogg clearly operates a multinational business, and did not run the campaign for purely altruistic reasons. Though aside from the sales generated, and the promotion of an association in consumers' minds with a health conscious brand, the campaign may pave the way for the launch of another product - the very successful meal replacement product that Kellogg already sells in Canada.

Vector meal replacement set for UK launch?

The product is Vector, a "meal replacement in a flaked format," which was developed in Canada and launched in April 1999. The product is not unknown in Europe, having won a coveted SIAL d'Or award in Paris last October. Vector is aimed at 18 to 49-year-olds and contains 16 micro-nutrients including vitamins, minerals, protein and complex carbohydrates. Kellogg sponsors Canada's national basketball team, with the official line from Canada Basketball being that they are "fortunate to have Kellogg's Vector meal replacement fuelling our national team athletes."

Sources in Canada insist Vector will be introduced to the UK, although Kellogg officials in the UK have denied any plans to launch the product in the UK market.

These developments look set to shake-up the meal replacement market, and could lead to further innovations. Either by current players in the UK market, such as SlimFast, which was acquired by Anglo-Dutch conglomerate Unilever last year, or by others seeking to enter the sector. Judging by the success of Vector in Canada, it seems there is a demand for meal replacements in newer formats.

Will SlimFast fight back with cereal launch?

But even if Vector is not launched anytime soon, the meal replacements sector of the slimming market in the UK could still face serious shake-up in the near future. SlimFast is the leading player in the UK weight-loss meal replacement field, and shook-up the weight loss industry when it was launched. SlimFast started with meal replacement drinks, and expanded to bars and ready-to-drink shakes. Cereals don't seem like a huge next leap. SlimFast has marketed its products aggressively in the US, having hired celebrity endorsers such as Kathie Lee Gifford and former Los Angeles Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda.

For those seeking to lose weight fast, fad diets have always been around. They usually result in short term bursts of weight loss, before the next new diet is discovered. The Atkins Diet, a high-fat, low-carbohydrate diet, could be a prime example. An American Agriculture Department study, published in the March-April 2001 issue of the journal Obesity Research concludes that most popular diets help people drop pounds at first, but only traditional moderate-fat, high-carbohydrate regimens seem to keep the weight off. But it appears consumers think differently. Dr. Atkins seems to have captured the imagination of the US public, and is not unheard of in the UK.

Atkins making waves in Europe

He has published at least eight books on the subject, and his diet proved so popular that in the US it was taken into the food market - with meal replacement shakes. In 1998, the US saw the launch of the Dr Atkin's Diet Advantage Bar, a meal replacement bar claiming to be the lowest carbohydrate bar ever. The bars were revamped in 1999, with a new low-carbohydrate and sugar-free formulation. 1999 also saw the launch of the Atkins Diet Bake Mix, a low-carbohydrate flour substitute. In 2000, sugar-, calorie-, and carbohydrate-free Pancake Syrup was launched, as well as Atkins Breakfast Bars.

These developments in Canada and the US show how the slimming market is evolving, and Europe will not be far behind. As the population becomes more concerned with looking and feeling slim, the slimming aid market will continue to grow. Food manufacturers looking for a news outlet may well get fat helping others get thin.

By Jasmin Rashid, a food market analyst

The week before last just-food.com published a feature on consumer attitudes to food in the UK. It touched on dietary recommendations from the Food Standards Agency. To read it click here.