US: US feeding the UK a diet of growing consumption

The US food and diet industries feed off each other, and their ad spend leaves Americans fatter and poorer. The same might happen here.

The US is without doubt a food-centric nation. It is hard to be further than an arm’s reach away from an array of tempting food options in this land of abundance. While the UK is certainly catching up in terms of availability and quality, the gap in price, portion size and service is still significant both in and out of the home.

So when this great quality, widely available and affordable bounty is backed up by some of the biggest marketing spends in the world, it not only becomes the nation’s number one consumer item (more dollars are spent on food in the US than housing) but, for many, an addiction. The American Food Marketing Institute reports that in 1999, Americans spent $585.6bn (&£418m) on food in and out of the home – up 35 per cent from a decade earlier.

The US “bigger-is-better” philosophy is applied to food and drink portion sizes, both in restaurants and packaged goods. Soft drinks come in cans that hold 355ml – unlike Europe’s 330ml; bags of crisps are rarely sold in the measlylooking 34.5g portions familiar to the UK – they are sold in sacks of up to 613g in weight. Manufacturers claim these are designed for sharing, but the bulk of them are probably consumed by individuals most of the time. Meanwhile, stacks of pancakes, foot-long sandwiches, super-sized burgers and all-you-can-eat buffets are par for the course when eating out in the US.

As a result, the health statistics make for scary reading, with the US government estimating that 54 per cent of the adult population is overweight, 23 per cent are classified as clinically obese, and the chances of the average American dying of heart disease stands at 50 per cent. Of course, most Americans are familiar with these shocking statistics, and they are also aware they should do something about it.

Enter the US food industry’s partner in crime – the diet industry, worth over $33bn (&£24bn) a year. This sector wouldn’t even exist were it not for the generous portions and heavyweight marketing of the food industry, which itself draws inspiration from the ever-changing trends in the diet industry.

The calorific enemy of the overweight is ever changing – first, it was fat, and the food industry produced fat-free versions of almost all food stuffs. But still the US didn’t lose weight. Then the enemy became sugar – the Sugar Busters Diet became de rigueur, and sugar-free products abounded. Now the diet industry is tackling the threat of carbohydrates and many products are being launched or repackaged claiming “noor low-carbs” as a selling point.

Two of the main players in the US diet industry are Weightwatchers and Jenny Craig.

Weightwatchers, following its loss of market share as attention was focused on Heinz meals rather than the group classes of old, has turned its fortunes around recently. In part, this is a result of the company employing Fergie, much loved in the US, as spokeswoman.

Jenny Craig has not been so lucky, having thrown its weight behind Monica Lewinsky’s not so successful battle against the bulge. There was even a rumour that Jenny Craig herself had gained 70 pounds recently.

The US diet industry was brought into line by legislation in 1999, and has had to be more transparent about the full financial cost of its programmes, as well as being obliged to state “results not typical” under their before-and-after photographs of successful dieters.

This has still not gone far enough in the opinion of the American National Association for the Advancement of Fat Acceptance, which has written in its Guidelines for the Dieting Industry, that they would like to see all TV and radio ads for weight-loss diets banned, on the grounds that hardly any of them work long term.

The Internet has served as a community to bring together many overweight Americans who feel persecuted. At, readers are urged to “tie up the phone lines of those evil profiteers [the diet industry]- call their 1,800 phone lines and keep them talking.” The site includes a list of probing questions to ask companies about the efficacy of their programmes.

The media has been heavily criticised for its part in sending out confusing messages, especially to the young. US food manufacturers spent an estimated $23.4bn (&£17bn) on advertising in 1999. Some of the most aggressive marketing for some of the least healthy food options was aimed directly at children – and the incidence of childhood obesity is ever-rising, especially now that Play Stations, and not playgrounds, are winning the battle for children’s hearts.

This trend is coupled with glorified Hollywood celluloid images of almost impossibly thin actors and models. The American National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders estimates that 7 million US women and girls and 1 million men and boys are currently suffering from eating disorders. Of the 1 million US citizens receiving plastic surgery last year, 230,000 had liposuction and 30,000 of those were men – a 350 per cent rise from 1992.

Although obesity may be a serious issue in the US, the UK has little grounds for complacency, as it often adopts American foods and cultural behaviours. The news, earlier this year, that the UK is now consuming more Coca-Cola per head than tea, hitherto the nation’s number one drink, is alarming.

The UK may not have Thanksgiving feasts in November like the US, but there are warning signs that the British could soon be battling the bulge in the same way as Americans. The UK diet industry and plastic surgeons can look forward to expanding times.


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