OPINIONFood

The rise of Ozempic Nation: Will it hit the restaurant business?

Lisa Jennings and Nancy Kruse take on the latest weight-loss Magic Bullet to threaten our favorite national pastime: Buying and consuming junk food.
Weight loss
On Ozempic, consumers don't feel the need to eat. Will it impact sales? | Photo: Shutterstock.

Lisa:

Nancy, can we talk about Ozempic?

No doubt you’ve heard about this and other semaglutide drugs like Wegovy, which have been all the rage here in body-image-obsessed Los Angeles for some time now. It’s a diabetes drug that has become popular with non-diabetic patients to help them lose weight.

It’s so effective, apparently, it has sparked terms like “Ozempic butt,” referring to the loose skin that can result from previously plump areas of the body.

Really, it’s the latest in a long series of drugs, habits and diets touted as the solution to our growing problem with obesity. This one works by suppressing appetite, and, oh, it might also paralyze your intestines, obstruct your bowels or spark the notion of suicide. But many see it as worth the risk.

And it has gotten so much attention, it has even come up in restaurant chain earnings calls. A question was asked about the drug’s potential impact at the latest earnings report for Darden Restaurants, parent to Olive Garden, as if nation’s appetite would be so dampened, the brand’s plentiful breadsticks would no longer have appeal.

Fat chance.

What do you think?

Nancy:

I think, Lisa, that I need a moment to gird my loins as we prepare for yet another health-and-wellness fad. Pity the poor operators who’ve been whipsawed by one dietary dictate after another.

I mean, they’ve been told at various times to reduce ingredients like salt or sugar, to eliminate others like animal fat or high fructose corn syrup, to reduce the carbs and pump up the protein, and to post the calorie content of their items. Some of the foregoing guidelines were subsequently overturned, like the whole trans-fat debacle, or ignored by the very patrons they’re meant to benefit, as research indicates is largely the case with calorie disclosure.

However, this feels a little different to me, first, because it involves actual self-injected drugs and second, because no less a luminary than Oprah has joined the fray. She recently convened a panel of medical experts to discuss The State of Weight and bemoaned her own well-documented weight struggles. To hear her tell it, these diabetes drugs are like the proverbial golden ticket: The pounds drop right off.

However, one or the other of her experts did pipe up to warn that use of these drugs for dietary purposes is off-label, i.e., not FDA approved and lack studies of long-term efficacy and/or side effects, which you point out include potentially serious gastric issues, not to mention the dreaded Ozempic butt. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want one of those.

Still, as with all food-related issues, both social and conventional media are all over this. Out your way in La La Land, for example, Sharon Osbourne, a TV personality known primarily for being the wife of zonked-out rocker Ozzy, revealed she’d lost too much weight on Ozempic and now goes three days a week without eating, which means some local restaurateurs may be losing out on her business.

Which is where I want to throw this back to you. What do you think is the potential impact on the industry? Understanding that these are very early days and there will be lots and lots and lots of controversy around the issue, on a scale of one to 10, how would you rate the impact on restaurateurs?

Lisa:

Well, I think the impact will be limited to stock price, based on comments like that of Walmart U.S. CEO John Furner, who recently told Bloomberg that the company’s internal data indicated customers who take Ozempic purchase slightly less food than the total population—though he cautioned that it was too early to draw any conclusions.

Other Wall Street watchers have posed that, if indeed these drugs catch on for broader, long-term use, people could buy fewer salty and sweet snacks, like Twinkies and Ding Dongs.

But, of course, like so many so-called Magic Bullets to cure obesity that have come and gone—remember fen-phen and it’s minor side effect, heart-valve disease?—those who lose weight with drugs like Ozempic tend to gain it all back once off the medication, so one would assume the Twinkies and Ding Dongs are eventually coming back to those shopping carts.

Whether or not we become an Ozempic Nation, restaurants should recognize, once again, that there is a need for healthful, nutritious and craveable options on menus. And—I refer you, Nancy, to my earlier rants—preferably with the option for smaller portions.

In fact, I think there are other diet trends restaurant should pay more attention to.

Jack Li of Datassential recently noted that U.S. life expectancy has increased steadily over the past five decades, but in the last few years that rate of increase has slowed—a trend that began even before the pandemic.

The No. 1 cause for declines in life expectancy is the nation’s opioid epidemic, he said. But at No. 2 is unhealthy diet. Half of the country is either diabetic or pre-diabetic. In 1950, an estimated 5% of the population had non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, but in 2020 it was 45%.

Many diners now wear smart watches that monitor things like glucose levels, not to mention steps and calories, and that technology can impact the choices consumers make in restaurants.

Datassential estimates that 35% of diners say there are not enough healthy options in restaurants. Of course, we go out to eat with the intention of making healthful choice, and then that delicious cheeseburger topped with onion rings changes our minds.

That’s because restaurants put a lot of time and effort into making indulgent choices craveable, but less so for grilled fish with steamed vegetables.

And here’s another way diet trends are impacting restaurants: Danny Meyer recently noted in a Tweet—sorry, an X—that 6 p.m. is the new 8 p.m., in terms of restaurant reservations.

Some blame the popularity of intermittent fasting, which involves the notion of fasting at night, so dieters have to eat at an early hour—before the moon rises or the tide comes in or they turn into werewolves.

What explains this in your mind, Nancy?

Nancy:

Oh, sorry, Lisa, I was on the phone with my stockbroker, telling her to immediately dump my shares in Twinkies; I am, however, unrepentantly holding onto Ding Dongs.

As for your rant on portion sizes, I have heard you loud and clear, and you know that I agree with you. But you’ve also heard my resto-rants (see what I did there?) on the subject. As long as consumers equate value with portion size, and legions of them do, many operators will be hard-pressed to 86 their doggie bags and take-home boxes.

And I’m not entirely sure I agree that operators pay less attention to making better-for-you choices truly craveable. I’ve been tracking and writing about the wonderful work chefs are doing with vegetables—you know, the other plant-based alternatives—and I’ve been bleating endlessly about the fantastic innovation in this regard by campus foodservice operators, who cater to very large populations of vegans and vegetarians.  

But we both know that at the end of the day, operators stay in business by giving patrons what they want, and what they want in terms of health and wellness progresses at a glacial pace. 

I was truly interested to read X-Man Danny Meyer’s commentary on how 6 p.m. is the new 8 p.m.; in fact, there’s been tons of attention directed to the subject of late, with The New York Times cluck clucking that, heaven forfend, early-bird specials could actually become chic. 

Meyer is one of the best pundits in the biz, and I suspect there’s something to theories about intermittent fasting. But it’s been around for quite a while, I think. Like, wasn’t Gwyneth Paltrow and her Goop posse pushing the concept back in the early 20-teens?

So while it’s a credible reason for growing interest in sundown dining, I wonder if a bigger factor isn’t the number of us who still work from home? Like both you and I, for instance.

I’ll just speak for myself, but when the 5 p.m. whistle blows, I’m out of here. Truth be told, sometimes I don’t even wait for the whistle. At some point after lunch, the walls start to close in a little and I start to yearn for some real, live human interaction. 

On that subject, I just noticed that it’s 4:48 p.m. on a Friday. Surely, I can sneak out for a little happy-hour happiness. In fact, thanks to you I need to drink away the unhappy image of that Ozempic posterior, so my parting word to you, dear Lisa, is Cheers!

 

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