A new poll in the UK shows that three million people have tried the Atkins diet. Dieting and obesity are the watchwords that are dominating many news stories regarding consumer health. They are also dominating the boardroom agendas of many top food companies. Despite consumer willingness to try the latest diet fad, in the long term manufacturers should be looking to address healthy eating rather than dieting.

A poll commissioned by ITV found that three million people in the UK – 7% of men and 10% of women – are estimated to have tried the low-carbohydrate Atkins diet.

It appears that calorie-controlled and low fat diets are losing favour as consumers learn more about dieting and health. The popularity of diets such as the low-carb Atkins diet or the Zone diet, which is based on achieving a roughly similar balance of the major nutrients, show that consumers are increasingly looking beyond calorie-controlled diets.

However, manufacturers do not appear to be targeting this latest fad. Faced with flagging sales, McVities recently re-launched its low fat Go Ahead! range with no product reformulation. Poor recent sales of SlimFast also suggest that consumers are looking to change their dieting habits.

Despite consumers’ apparent growing health awareness and sophistication, they are getting fatter. There were 16.9 million overweight or obese people in the UK in 2002, up from 16 million in 1997 and predicted to rise to 18.1 million in 2007. In addition, only approximately 1% of dieters achieve permanent weight loss.

The single greatest challenge that the diet industry faces in coming years is to regain the trust of consumers. People hold the diet industry in low esteem, they doubt its claims and are suspicious of its motives.

Manufacturers seeking long-term tenable positions in the diet industry should therefore change tack. ‘Healthy eating’ should replace ‘dieting’ in the long term. The message that consumers need to receive is that dieting is not a long-term solution to excessive weight and should only be used to initially lose weight.

Manufacturers’ should then encourage consumers to move onto other products that will help them to develop and maintain healthy eating patterns. Dieters would also benefit from a broad range of products becoming available to support their efforts, and these need not be specialised dieting products.

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