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European consumer attitudes to dieting: An update on contradictory dieting mindsets

“Back to basics” seems to be the current dieting slogan – or so many dieters would have you believe. Rather than splashing out on specific diet products, consumers say that they prefer to eat healthily as a lifestyle choice. However, this seemingly new healthy attitude to dieting is still accompanied by the resilient size zero debate.

Consumers have a slightly schizophrenic attitude to dieting. While there is outrage at size zero models and celebrities, precisely these celebrities are today’s style and body icons. Meanwhile, although many women want to lead a healthier lifestyle, the majority of dieting women nevertheless want to opt for the “easy way”, with a large proportion taking diet pills or dreaming of liposuction rather than exercising and eating a balanced diet.

Key trends

  • Feeding the stereotype;
  • Naturally and healthily slim – a resolution at least;
  • Size zero paradoxes;
  • New-generation dieting;
  • We want lifestyle advice, not dieting advice!

Commercial opportunities

  • Although women are the major consumers of dieting products, men are not impartial to the body image hype;
  • Advertise lifestyle-adjusted diet tips (e.g. for the woman who works in an office, the housewife, or the banker working long hours);
  • Celebrity associations with diets can help boost sales;
  • Advertise diets with natural fat-burners;
  • Increasingly use the internet to promote products and diets;
  • Advertise diets as “easy” and without the need for extreme exercise.

Background

Dieting is more popular in Europe than ever, although there are regional differences. On average, one in five Europeans tries to lose weight by following a diet at least once in every two years, according to “Diet, Cuisine and Cooking” a GfK study conducted for the Wall Street Journal Europe. The craving for a new body often makes people feel that they will lead a better life once they are thinner.

Since there is seemingly no “miracle diet”, there are always new diet trends which are as volatile as fashion trends. In the 1990s, it was the cabbage soup diet; in the early 1990s, the carb-demonising Atkins diet dominated, and in the mid-1990s, it was all about Glycemic Index Diets, which advocated weight control through balancing sugar levels.

Judging by the dieting tips in magazines, on the internet and in books, the new trend is towards a more holistic lifestyle approach. Modern diets are about balancing your hectic lifestyle with a balanced diet and exercise. As healthy and natural as this sounds, underlying this new trend lurks the size zero trend to be super-skinny. So have consumers finally seen the light and become set on leading healthier lifestyles, or is it the pound-shedding-quick-fix-miracle diets that are really at the forefront of their thinness cravings?

Feeding the stereotype

Surveys on consumers’ dieting attitudes tend to confirm what we already know. A BBC Radio 1 Newsbeat and 1xtra TXU survey from 2007 questioning 25,000 people in the UK between the ages of 17 to 34 found that more women than men put themselves on a diet. More than 20% of female respondents and fewer than 10% of men said they were on a diet.

In a similar 2008 survey by fabuousmag.co.uk, 56% of UK women said they would consider plastic surgery, of which 41% would opt for liposuction. 79% of female respondents to this survey said that they wanted to lose weight.

Not everything about dieting is in tune with the obvious though. French women, for example, do not diet but are still slimmer than the average European, despite their creamy, cheesy and generally cholesterol-fuelled dishes. Ironically, as Mimi Spencer of the Guardian points out, the Brits that diet the most are also the least likely to be slim. It is not only young impressionable women that suffer from dissatisfaction with their bodies; it is also women in their 40s.

In a survey by UK magazine Top Sante, 70% of UK women in this age group had made a serious attempt to diet in the past year. Indeed, the survey found that the average woman in her 40s wants to weigh less than she did aged 20. For men, it is not so much the dieting that keeps them on their toes, but an equally forceful body image, that of the lean muscular man. Quite worryingly, children are also dieting. In the Netherlands, also a big dieting country, a survey about the dieting behaviour of 2,500 children revealed that 13.7% of children between the ages of 9 and 12 had been on a diet.

Since all seem to be affected, from the child to the adult, the slimming industries in Europe are enormous. According to the BBC, the UK diet industry, for example, is worth an estimated one billion pounds a year.

Naturally and healthily slim – a resolution at least

Extreme diets seem to be out. Gone are the days of unbalanced diets, which peaked with the Atkins diet in 2003. Now people are dieting ‘healthily’. Dieting books are full of stories of how to eat a balanced diet, savour your food, and generally improve your life. Books such as “Chic and Slim: How Those French Women Eat all that Rich Food and still stay Slim”. It is not only the dieting industry that is involved in dieting projects. Governments of countries particularly affected by obesity are also encouraging a healthier lifestyle. In Finland, for example, obesity was extremely high in the 1970s.

Since the government intervened with education and control of children’s weight (weighing in school, banning of vending machines, etc), obesity rates are down and dieting awareness is up. A 2006 GfK survey found that a total of 36% of Finns (50% of women) had started a diet in the past two years.

Exercise has always been considered by men to be the best way of shedding weight and women are now catching on. Diets now recommend a certain amount of exercise every week or every day. The importance of exercise is incorporated into diet regimes; foods that keep energy and sugar levels high are therefore often part of a modern diet.

However, these slimming trends are not quite on par with figures from the dieting industry that imply that consumers in some European countries are still splashing out on pills to make them thinner. In a survey by Top Sante of women over 40, a third said that they had taken slimming pills or laxatives. Another survey, by fabulousmag.co.uk, showed what extremes women go to lose weight: 21% said they had fasted, 11% have made themselves sick, 7% of women have laxatives, and 25% have taken diet pills. An ominous 36% did not answer the question.

This implies that while consumers are full of good intentions about exercise, and even recommend it as a solution to health problems, they ultimately feel a diet is an easier route to weight loss.

In some European countries, many diet pills have now been banned due to the health risks associated with their active ingredients. In Germany, most diet pills have been taken off the market and got such bad press that Germans are now forced to go natural. German newspapers and magazines are all about natural “fat-burners”, from cinnamon to pineapple.

Size zero paradoxes

Although most people that want to diet now prefer a healthy diet, there is still a longing to know about the diet tricks of skinny celebrities. Women’s glossy magazines are full of tips on how celebrities have lost significant weight or maintain a skinny figure. Obsession with celebrity bodies is prevalent in all other European countries. While many people claim that they want to look healthy and not skinny, many women secretly long to be skinny.

There is therefore a paradox in the outrage about skinny celebrities and their existence as “body-role-models”. A survey conducted by glossy magazine New Woman found that six out of 10 women in the UK think that size zero is attractive and around the same amount think that men find size zero attractive. In the same survey, 97% of women claimed that they thought size 12 is fat.

The size zero debate also opens up the darker side of body dissatisfaction – eating disorders. A spokeswoman for Beating Eating Disorders has claimed that there were an estimated 1.1 million people in the UK with eating disorders in 2007. 700,000 women were thought to be suffering from eating disorders in Germany in 2008, according to the German Chamber of Medical Doctors. While many women do not necessarily have a clinical eating disorder, most have disorderly eating habits, such as skipping meals for dieting purposes.

New-generation dieting

The internet has proved itself one of the main tools for gaining information on diets. Although glossy magazines always include new diets, the internet is full of dieting blogs and dieting recipes. The latest dieting craze (considered a major diet trend for 2009) the “Lunch Box diet” was an internet success first. Indeed, attendance at traditional Weight Watchers meetings is down around 15% since online dieting groups have offered a cheaper and easier alternative. Dieting websites are showing the same trend towards a general healthier lifestyle than a fast weight-loss diet.

The Wii Fit, a Nintendo games console that combines exercise and fun, was the smash hit of 2008. Calling Wii Fit “a revolution in computer gaming,” Woolworths’ games buyer Gerry Berkley said: “For a game not targeted at gamers to sell in numbers like this is unheard of and is genuinely changing the market.” This chain sold an average of 90 games per minute when it was first launched in Europe.

We want lifestyle advice, not dieting advice!

There are certain requirements that a new millennium diet must meet. An important one is that it must be adaptable to hectic lifestyles as many consumers crave advice on coordinating such a lifestyle with a balanced diet to help them feel good about themselves. Their diet is only part of the bigger picture of being a modern healthy person. Therefore, the diet is no longer a diet in a conventional sense, but rather a lifestyle choice. The new Lunch Box Diet fits snugly into hectic schedules: it is recommended that followers pack a lunch box of vegetables, lean meats and fish and graze on the contents every couple of hours while it carries a celebrity signature (it is promoted as the preferred diet of Cameron Diaz) and fits in exercise units too.

Outlook

Diets in glossy magazines and blogs are high season in the post-Christmas season. Every magazine, whether for men or women, will include a new diet and dieting book sales will soar as they do every year. The post-Christmas dieting season is then followed by the fashion shows starting with London fashion week in February, which spark the size zero debate anew. These cycles in press coverage of promoting dieting on the one hand and the dark side of dieting on the other reveal the cyclical paradoxes of dieting.

Obesity rates around Europe are on the rise, which means that governments are increasingly intervening to promote a healthier lifestyle. These factors will ensure that the healthy-balanced-eating diet is here (with variations of course) to stay.

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