Published: April 15, 2014
Obsessing over calories alone has left dieters with an empty feeling.
The calorie counting that defined dieting for so long is giving way to other considerations, such as the promise of more fiber or natural ingredients. That is chipping away at the popularity of products such as Diet Coke, Lean Cuisine and Special K, which became weight-watching staples primarily by stripping calories from people's favorite foods.
Part of the problem: "Low-calorie" foods make people feel deprived. Now, people want to lose weight while still feeling satisfied.
And they want to do it without foods they consider processed.
Kelly Pill has been dieting since her son was born in 1990. But the 54-year-old resident of Covina, Calif., made changes to her approach in recent years. She doesn't eat Lean Cuisine microwavable meals as often because she doesn't find them that filling. She also switched to Greek yogurt last year to get more protein.
"Regular yogurt is really thin," Pill said. "It was low in calories, but it wasn't filling."
It's not that people don't care about calories anymore. Nutrition experts still say weight loss comes down to burning more calories than you eat.
But dieters are sick of foods that provide only fleeting satisfaction and seem to make them hungrier.
The new thinking is that eating foods with more protein or fat will make dieters less likely to binge later, even if they're higher in calories.
"People are recognizing that it's not enough to just go on a diet and lose weight. Nutrition comes more into play," said Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a health advocacy group.
Perhaps most emblematic of calorie counts as a marketing gimmick are the 100-calorie snacks that flooded the market a decade ago. Some food companies are retreating from the strategy.
In the past four years, sales of 100-calorie snack packs of Oreos have plummeted 72 percent, according to IRI. Parent company Mondelez International Inc. also has pruned varieties from its 100-calorie lineup and now offers only four.
Mondelez spokesman Richard Buino said the company is focusing on healthy snacks that are about "more than an arbitrary calorie amount."
Frito-Lay also made its last shipment of 100-calorie pack Cheetos and Doritos this past summer. The chip maker's new "ready-to-go" packs still have about 100 calories, but the trait is no longer advertised on the bag's front.
The sales declines for diet brands are a reminder that what's in vogue today might also eventually be seen as marketing gimmicks.
In fact, Karen Miller-Kovach, chief scientific officer at Weight Watchers, points to a pitfall: The belief that a food is wholesome is sometimes used to justify eating too much, she said - in other words, consuming too many calories.
"Just because something is simple doesn't mean it's going to give you your desired weight loss," she said.