European consumers are becoming steadily heavier and more out of shape. Add this to a climate in which media images continually reinforce the concept of the ideal body, and consumers are becoming more conscious of their own figure. This has driven interest in "shape management" - not just losing weight, but developing a "toned and honed" figure.

This drive towards physical improvement will increase the value of the diet market to €96bn (US$90m) by 2006, according to a new report by independent market analyst Datamonitor.

Changing patterns in daily life coupled with alterations in diet have caused shifts in both the Body Mass Index (BMI) profile of European nations and the ways in which the citizens of these nations perceive themselves. Across western Europe, the trend is for people to put on weight, mimicking the development of the BMI profile in the US. One-third of western European consumers are now overweight and by 2006 this will increase to almost half. Germany, Italy and Spain will be the heaviest countries with over 50% of their population being medically overweight. The UK and France will be comparatively lighter at only 40%. 

"Over the past couple of decades, our diets have become much less regulated, breaking away from the three meals a day structure in favour of convenience," said Andrew Russell, Datamonitor consumer markets analyst and author of the Diet, Exercise and Physical Appearance report.

"Modern diets are more calorific, yet people expend less energy during the day - this is mainly due to the more sedentary nature of the work people do nowadays. But although the average person's body is getting bigger, this is driving increasing interest in maintaining and developing a good physique, even if this interest does not always translate into long-term lifestyle changes. Both those who find themselves overweight and those who are keen to avoid being in that position are increasingly interested in using both exercise and diet to manage their shape," he added.

The potential market for diet food and drinks products 
(€m), 1996-2001 & CAGR (compound annual growth rate)

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€m  1996  1999  2001  CAGR 1996-2001 
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France   11,230  12,418  13,182  3.3% 
Germany  18,288  19,155  19,292  1.1% 
Italy  11,156  12,297  13,393  3.7% 
Netherlands  4,479  4,746  4,930  1.9% 
Spain  5,218  6,059  6,154  3.4% 
Sweden  2,539  2,784  2,966  3.2% 
UK  13,890  14,570  15,197  1.8% 
Other  13,759  14,805  15,423  2.3% 
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Total  82,556  88,832  92,539  2.3% 
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Source: Datamonitor

One-third of consumers believe in an 'ideal-body'

There is a visible reaction to the increase in the numbers of overweight people. Consumer awareness of the importance of exercise and good diet has increased in recent years. This is due to heightened marketing of professional gyms, diet programs and exercise techniques, all guaranteed to give consumers a healthier, more attractive body. The media further drives consumer concern about body shape - the majority of consumers questioned by Datamonitor feel either guilt or envy when presented with media images of beautiful bodies. The concept of the "ideal body" is fairly widespread - one-third of consumers admit they personally believe such an ideal exists, while two-thirds feel that most other people believe in the "ideal body".

Feeling good is most common reason for exercising

Datamonitor's European consumer survey on shape management found that "feeling good" is the most common reason for exercising, an answer which reflects not only the physical benefits of exercise but also the mental benefits:  improved self-image; a sense of achievement and a feeling of "virtue". Toning muscle and losing weight - both shape management activities - are the next most common reasons for exercising.

Lack of time and laziness are the two greatest barriers to participation. This indicates the ambivalent attitude that most consumers have towards their physical shape - while they clearly desire to get fitter, they often fail to act on this impulse, either because they have difficulty finding the time to do it or because they find it too difficult to start exercising. Across Europe, exercise is usually done by consumers out of a sense of duty - 85% of respondents to Datamonitor's survey who regularly visit a gym felt guilty after missing one exercise session.

"Normal" weight consumers are most likely to take action

The tendency to diet to control one's physique varies across weight groups. Using the BMI, consumers can be classed as underweight, normal weight and overweight. The underweight are, unsurprisingly, the least likely to try and diet. They are also the group least likely to take exercise, and the group most likely to feel good about their body.

By contrast, consumers of normal weight are the most likely to take action to change their shape, despite the fact that on the whole they are fairly happy with their bodies. This group exercises more, and diets more, than both the underweight and the overweight, in an effort to maintain, or enhance, their physique. Interestingly, consumers in any weight range tend not to pursue both dieting and exercising when trying to control their shape, but rather to pick one or the other. This is because there is a conflict between consumers' desires for a good physique and their desire to indulge themselves. In particular, those normal weight consumers who only want to maintain their body will use their chosen means of shape control to give themselves permission to indulge in their preferred vice, whether that be chocolate, rich desserts or Friday night drinks. 

Overweight consumers: not willing to change lifestyle

The overweight are even more prone to using shape-control strategies to justify their indulgence. Although overweight consumers do almost as much exercise as those of normal weight, they are a lot less likely to diet and have a much poorer perception of their own bodies. The attitude of most overweight consumers is that a good body, however much they might desire it, is not worth the effort it would take to achieve in terms of serious lifestyle changes such as more hard exercise and fewer indulgences.

Normal weight consumers most profitable group to target

Manufacturers looking to take advantage of the burgeoning interest in shape management should target normal weight consumers, followed by the overweight. Normal weight consumers are a good market segment as they display a strong desire to manage their shape, and more willpower to apply the necessary changes to their lifestyle.

The overweight are the second most profitable group, as they will continually seek to make small changes to their lifestyle and diet without ever removing the underlying need to do so, making them potentially life-long customers. While both the normal weight and overweight consumer can oscillate between a desire for health and a desire for indulgence, the overweight consumer will do so with greater frequency - possibly even between lunchtime and dinner. As they are the fastest growing consumer segment, there will be an increase in the number of people who consume a small amount of healthy products in order to feel healthier.

Dairy, fats & spreads to benefit while alcohol loses out Within the various sectors of diet food, slowest growth will be seen in confectionery and fats and spreads. Fastest growth will be witnessed in dairy foods and bakery due to increasing consumer choice of these products.

For the alcoholic drinks industry, there may be a negative side to the increased consumer desire for a healthy lifestyle. Datamonitor estimates that by 2006, shape-conscious abstention from alcoholic drinks (particularly beer) will cost the drinks industry €5bn.