European consumers are becoming increasingly concerned about dieting, a factor which has led to phenomenal growth in the market for weight loss products. But as market analysts Datamonitor point out, consumers are also becoming increasingly disillusioned with dieting, and finding ways to stop them putting weight back on will be the key to generating growth in this market.
The key to ensuring that dieting really works, according to Datamonitor's new report, Diet Watchers, is education. There are too many conflicting messages about diet and nutrition, and food producers and retailers need to work harder at getting the right message across.
The population of Europe is growing fatter. Data suggests that 85 per cent of the European population is aware of the problem, and worried about it, giving food manufacturers a potentially huge market to target. But Datamonitor's research shows that the main driver of the €93 billion diet market (food, drinks and supplements) is not obese consumers but people seeking to lose weight for purely cosmetic reasons - a desire to conform to current aesthetic standards.
Whatever the reasons for dieting, it is big business across Europe. Datamonitor's report shows that Germany is the main European market for diet foods - perhaps a logical extension of that country's traditionally high-fat diet - with sales of €19.6 billion in 2002. But it is also projected to have the slowest growth rate over the next five years- just 0.5 per cent to €20 billion by 2007.
The UK is the second largest market, with sales worth €15.6 billion in 2002, and the much publicised increase in obesity levels in Britain is likely to keep this market growing steadily over the next few years - 1.3 per cent to €16.7 billion by 2007. That fashion is as much a driver of the weight loss market as is health is evidenced by the size of the diet segment in both Italy and France, where the levels of obesity have traditionally been lower as a result of the Mediterranean diet. But with sales of €14 billion and €13.8 billion respectively, dieting is clearly big business in both Italy and France, and will continue to be so, according to Datamonitor, with predicted growth of 2 per cent in both markets each year to 2007.
Spanish diet food sales reached €6.4 billion in 2002, with growth set to average 4.9 per cent a year to top €8.1 billion in 2007, while Dutch consumers bought €5 billion worth of diet food, drinks and supplements in 2002, with expenditure set to grow to €5.4 billion in 2007. Sweden's diet foods market was worth €3.1 billion in 2002, rising to €3.3 billion in 2007, Datamonitor's report claims.
"In 2002, 230.6 million people across Europe attempted a diet. Of these, only 3.8 million will succeed in keeping off the weight that they have lost for over a year. The appallingly low success rate of diets reflects badly on the diet industry, and this problem must be addressed effectively," said Lawrence Gould, Datamonitor consumer markets analyst and author of the report.
Consumers' behaviour and attitudes with regard to dieting vary according to several factors, the main ones being gender and age. Whereas both sexes' main reason for dieting is cosmetic, and both shift the emphasis to health to some degree as they grow older, the ways in which they approach dieting differ. Women are more likely to try a variety of diets, and in fact to diet at all. The majority of adult men claim never to diet.
Most important is the level of commitment to diet. The vast majority of consumers are only sporadic dieters, who do not sustain the effort and are likely to regain the weight that they have lost. Indeed overall, only approximately 1 per cent of dieters achieve permanent weight-loss.
As a result of these low success rates, dieters are losing their faith in the authenticity of claims of effectiveness, and they hold the diet industry in very low esteem, Datamonitor's report suggests. Some 76 per cent of dieters believe that the diet industry encourages unrealistic expectations, leading to low confidence in consumers' ability to lose weight permanently. This in turn has a real impact on the chances of success, and causes a downward spiral.
One major problem is that there are a wide variety of products on the market which are entirely ineffective in promoting weight loss, and clamping down on unscrupulous manufacturers and distributors is a constant battle - and one which needs to be won if consumers are ever going to have confidence in the diet industry.
But ensuring that the right information gets through to consumers is not an easy task. Potential dieters are bombarded by a myriad of sources. Their information about dieting, weight loss, nutrition and obesity comes from food manufacturers and retailers, but the source that targets them most effectively is the mass media. The problem with this is that no clear message emerges, said Datamonitor.
The information is usually conflicting, and many less scrupulous publications are perfectly happy to report news of seemingly effortless and rapid diets and weight loss methods. Therefore, the majority of consumers are ill-informed about what they can realistically expect from dieting. This reflects poorly on the diet industry and is a major contributing factor to the ineffectiveness of people's dieting efforts.
"The food and drinks industry, as well as retailers, has the influence and financial leverage necessary to produce coherent information campaigns to educate dieters on nutritional matters," said Gould. "There have already been instances of companies taking action on this, especially amongst retailers. 'Healthy eating' as opposed to 'dieting' are the watchwords for any such campaign. The message that dieters need to receive is that a diet alone is not a long-term solution to excessive weight. It is certainly part of it, but only within the context of a general pattern of healthy eating and exercise habits.
"The ultimate aim should be that a person seeking permanent weight-loss should not consciously be on a constant diet but rather should have changed his or her lifestyle. For food manufacturers and retailers, this means that dieters should find a broad range of products available to support their efforts, and these need not be specialised dieting products. Whereas a dieter may initially lose excess weight through a traditional diet, they should then be encouraged to move on to manufacturers' or retailers' other products which will help them to develop and maintain healthy eating patterns.
"This approach should lead to higher dieting success rates, a better image for the diet industry and higher confidence amongst consumers," Gould concluded.