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The skinny

Many consumers say they want to eat healthier, but what’s really on their minds? Just a year ago, if you’d dared to suggest the low-carb craze might fizzle at some point, your listener would probably have choked on his no-flour bagel. Yet historically, few restaurant trends prove as fragile as health-related ones, and by now many are asking the pointed questions: Is low-carb finally fading? Is it dead? And whatever that answer, what’s going on in the minds of health-conscious consumers right now?

There will be, of course, as many new food trends as there are foods, yet a body of recent consumer research suggests two interesting developments on the health front. First, low-carb isn’t dead—but we do seem to be in the midst of a significant market correction. Second, according to a number of customer surveys, the whole concept of healthy eating seems to be heavily linked to a factor that has nothing to do with actually eating healthy.

More on that later. First, it’s time for a trip down low-carb lane.

Back in the ancient year of 2002, conditions were ripe for a low-carb explosion. Some 18% of Americans said they eat healthy when dining out, reported a privately commissioned Roper ASW study at that time. And indeed, up until quite recently, lots of evidence showed that low-carb was king. The Natural Marketing Institute surveyed over 1,300 Americans this past summer, for example, and determined that fully one third of America had “tried the low-carb approach.” And that number, NMI maintained, was up from 24% from the previous year.

But trying a diet hardly means sticking with one, as other numbers demonstrate. The retail food sector reported that sales of low-carb prod­ucts were dropping. And a survey released this fall by the Maritz organization reminded trend-watchers that while there is indeed a demonstrable “greater consciousness” about healthy eating, only one if four Americans admit to being on any kind of diet.

And down we go. In January 2003, a Morgan Stanley study pegged the number of Americans on low-carb diets at 13%. By the summer of 2004, that number had dropped to 11%. About the same time, an InsightExpress study determined that the number was more like 10%.

Other research puts that number even lower. In February of 2004, NPD Group charted the percentage of Americans on a low-carb regimen at only 9%. By the early summer, it was hovering at 6%. Then NPD issued another report: As of September 2004, the percentage of Americans following the low-carb mantra had hit a new low of 5%.

Finally, consider the results of a telephone survey conducted by Mark Clements Research this past August. Not only are fewer Americans dieting to lose weight (one in five versus one in three last year), but 56% of consumers say they “never think about carbohydrates” when eating. Put another way: For all the millions of Americans who’ve tried low-carb, millions more than that hardly noticed.

So when it comes to healthy eating, what are customers thinking these days? A review of some new studies out there makes an interesting suggestion: “Healthy” might mean low-carb to some, low-fat to others, and non-meat to still others, yet none of these trends seems to be the main reason why many people are choosing to eat healthy. Rather, a significant number of consumers are eating healthy for no other reason than it appears to make them feel sociologically and morally superior than those who are not.

Could image really be more important than the carb count? Consider a recent study by the Produce Marketing Associ­ation. While 25% of Americans reported that having a salad when they ate out “made them feel better,” a whopping 95% of them said that being seen eating a salad connotes one as “self-disciplined, health conscious, and healthier than others.”

When it comes to losing weight, there’s clearly as much concern—if not more—with how Americans are viewed and judged by their peers as there is with maintaining a healthy weight for its own sake. For example, a 2003 study by WirthlinWorldwide revealed that while 27% of Americans admitted that their overall health is worse than it was three years ago, a greater percentage worries that they look it, too. Nearly a third (32%) of respondents reported that they were bothered by the idea that “others see them as overweight.”

Even a so-called healthy weight seems more a matter of aesthetics than anything else. While having a normal body weight could still leave one looking a little frumpy, Americans seem driven to lose weight not by the scale, but by the mirror. According to a 2004 study by Impulse Research, nearly all Americans (95%) say they’d like to lose their protruding stomachs (Men tend to say “gut” and women “belly,” when asked this question.) Indeed, according to the recently released Obesity in America report, the idea (cherished by dieticians and the U.S. government) that Americans use objective measures like weight or BMI to assess their health is “a myth.”

None of this suggests, of course, that the healthy eating craze is a farce—most evidence points to its being quite real. But the reasons customers follow the craze might not be the ones that many industry watchers have supposed. Somehow the reality is always more dismal than the marketing. And just to ruin the rest of the party, here are two more healthy-eating developments to emerge recently. Fact: According to the Montana Dietetic Association, the most common vegetables that American children eat are french fries, pizza sauce, and ketchup.

Fact: According to a recent Harris Interactive poll, American leisure activities that require physical exertion have been on a precipitous decline since 1995. Among today’s leading ways to spend free time: Relaxing (3%), sleeping (3%), and watching TV (20%.)

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