A long time ago here in the U.S., foods were cooked in home kitchens. Snacks didn’t come out of bags, rice wasn’t a pre-flavored, pre-packaged side dish and pasta sauce didn’t come out of a jar. When folks went on a diet, they counted calories differently than Americans have become used to doing over the past few decades. People actually replaced higher calorie foods with lower calorie foods, ate more vegetables and fruit and cut down on fattier meats with the addition of leaner proteins. None of it was rocket science. It was simply common sense. It did require some work, however.
As the concept of convenience infiltrated our culture, manufacturers removed that work for us, providing us with easy solutions to dieting. It does appear, though, that Americans are managing to redefine that pre-packaged definition of dieting.
The calorie counting that defined dieting for so long is giving way to other considerations, like the promise of more fiber or natural ingredients. That is chipping away at the popularity of products like Diet Coke, Lean Cuisine and Special K, which became weight-watching staples primarily by stripping calories from people’s favorite foods.
Part of the problem: “Low-calorie” foods make people feel deprived. Now, people want to lose weight while still feeling satisfied. And they want to do it without foods they consider processed.
Kelly Pill has been dieting since her son was born in 1990. But the 54-year-old resident of Covina, Calif., made changes to her approach in recent years. She doesn’t eat Lean Cuisine microwavable meals as often because she doesn’t find them that filling. She also switched to Greek yogurt last year to get more protein.
“Regular yogurt is really thin,” Pill said. “It was low in calories, but it wasn’t filling.”
It’s not that people don’t care about calories anymore. Nutrition experts still say weight loss comes down to burning more calories than you eat.
But dieters are sick of foods that provide only fleeting satisfaction and seem to make them hungrier. The new thinking is that eating foods with more protein or fat keeps will make dieters less likely to binge later, even if they’re higher in calories.
“People are recognizing that it’s not enough to just go on a diet and lose weight. Nutrition comes more into play,” said Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a health advocacy group.
The proof is in the pudding, as the saying goes. Sales of Special K cereals are down 7 percent in the last two years, according to IRI, a market research firm based in Chicago. Lean Cuisine saw a 27 percent drop in sales over the last four years. Both Diet Coke and Diet Pepsi saw sales volume fall by nearly 7 percent last year, according to the industry tracker Beverage Digest. That was steeper than declines for their full-calorie counterparts. Executives at Coca-Cola Co. and PepsiCo Inc. blame customers’ move away from artificial sweeteners and say they’re working on sodas using natural low-calorie sweeteners. The drinks are likely to have more calories than traditional diet sodas, but the thinking is that people will accept the tradeoff to avoid artificial ingredients.
Perhaps most emblematic of calorie counts as a marketing gimmick are the 100-calorie snacks that flooded the market a decade ago. Some food companies are retreating from the strategy.
In the past four years, sales of 100-calorie snack packs of Oreos have plummeted 72 percent, according to IRI. Parent company Mondelez International Inc. also has pruned varieties from its 100-calorie lineup and now offers only four.
Mondelez spokesman Richard Buino said the company is focusing on healthy snacks that are about “more than an arbitrary calorie amount.”
Frito-Lay also made its last shipment of 100-calorie pack Cheetos and Doritos this past summer. The chip maker’s new “ready-to-go” packs still have about 100 calories, but the trait is no longer advertised on the bag’s front.
We’re on the right track. FoodFacts.com doesn’t think we need to remind anyone that obesity rates have skyrocketed in the last few decades, during a time when convenience and “diet” foods have infiltrated our grocery shelves. We’ve learned that artificial sweeteners can actually have an effect on weight gain, instead of weight loss. We know that diet entrees can leave us hungry and lead us to eat more. Real food doesn’t need to be replaced when we’re dieting. All we have to do is adjust our habits. No one ever needed help from food manufacturers to do that.