Lose five pounds overnight, count calories, eat a high-protein diet, eat a low-fat diet, do the 5-a-day program, count points, find the “zone.” Dieting is a multi billion dollar industry. And its commonality with the food industry lies not just in high revenues but also in its central component – food. So how does the food industry know what is going on in the diet world? How are eating trends and diet patterns tracked? How, as an industry, is such information tapped into for market research, promotional development, sales enhancement, and customer satisfaction?

Lots of questions with no clearly definable answers. According to recent survey results by the NPD market research group of Rosemont, IL, a national eating trends survey revealed that one in five men and one in three women are on some type of a diet. This clearly validated the reason for interest in the relationship between dieting habits and food purchases.

The hot diet names these days include Atkins, Ornish, and the Weight Watchers point system. These diets promote different foods on a path to optimal health. The Atkins diet, based on the theory that if the body is not provided with carbohydrates it will choose an alternate source of energy (i.e. fat). Therefore, the diet encourages a high protein, high fat, low carbohydrate regime – increasing dramatically the consumption of meats, eggs, cheese, and fat while severely restricting fruits, most vegetable, cereals, grains, and starches. If this type of high protein diet were followed by a significant number of people in a given population there would be an economic shift away from produce and grain product producers and toward meat, dairy, and fat industries.

Ceci Synder of the National Pork Producers notes that there has indeed been an increase in pork consumption over the past 2 years. She is however, quick to point out that there may be other causes for the rise, including a good economy that allows for increased spending on meat products. She went on to state that the correlation between specific diets and pork purchases has never been studied. The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association had much the same response – beef demand is also up in the US (this does not apply in Europe for obvious, BSE-related reasons) and the reasons for that are multiple. Both groups were clear to point out that they advocate well balanced diet patterns.

“The diet world not only affects the decisions of food purchases for home preparation but also directly impacts the restaurant industry.”

The Ornish diet is based on evidence that high lipid and cholesterol levels exacerbate heart disease. A very low fat, low calorie diet is used to reduce weight, blood lipids, and cholesterol levels. Converse to the Atkins diet, this diet would increase the purchases of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains while dramatically reducing meat, dairy, and snack food consumption. The 5-a-day program is used to encourage the consumption of at least 5 servings per day of fruits and vegetables. As with the Atkins diet, the economic impact of any of these diets remains undocumented. The possibility exists that the diets, advocating vastly different food choices, may negate each other in changing any sector of food purchasing.

The most recent Weight Watchers diet program uses a point system. Different foods count for differing points based on their fat and caloric content. The user is given a catalog of foods and restaurants to choose from and then eats up to the preset point level. As new items become available, they are assigned a point level. Mike Tetmeyer, of the American Midwestern based Hy-Vee grocery store chain states that although they don’t track specific diets as they relate to food purchases, they have noticed increased sales in a product right after the product has been approved or scored by Weight Watchers.

The diet world not only affects the decisions of food purchases for home preparation but also directly impacts the restaurant industry. According to the National Restaurant Association, “healthier” diet requests are being honored regularly. Menu variety also allows people to pick and choose their selections based on their specific diet needs. The NRA points out that although this diet – food purchase information is not tracked, the restaurant industry is one of accommodation and responds to customer requests. The idea, however, of tracking this type of data may be of future interest; helping to drive product development and marketing efforts.

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Just as sales of diet products are reviewed by the U. S. Food and Drug Administration to track the impact and significance of the diet industry, so are food sales. The Economic Research Service of the United States Department of Agriculture tracks sales in all areas of food production. At this point, however, there is no work being done to find what correlation lies between the two industries. Each sector of the food industry will at least for now have to make its own interpretations of the impact another industry may have on their product and make the appropriate accommodations.

By Jane M. Hemminger, RD, LD, just-food.com correspondent