However, statistics on the weight of the population still indicate that these programs are not working. According to the “State of Obesity” report—a project of the Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation—obesity rates have more than doubled in the U.S. over the past 35 years. From 2009-2010 to 2011-2012, rates remained the same, however, the average American is more than 24 pounds heavier today than in 1960. So despite all of the efforts among consumers, along with the $30 billion diet industry, one could argue that the most we have achieved is stasis.
What can we do to effect faster change? It would be obvious and fair to say in light of all this effort that there is not an easy answer. However, one thing we can discuss is understanding consumer preferences and how to individualize them based on their attitudes. Why the topic of weight is relevant to consumers needs to be better understood. Additionally, in order to impart lasting success, companies need to recognize and address the actual mental struggle that is present for more than a third of people attempting to lose weight.
Consumers are definitely concerned about excess weight. In a 2012 HealthFocus study of 1,880 consumers titled “Solutions for Consumer Weight Management Segments,” 58% of respondents had been actively trying to lose weight in the last month.
According to another study, the “2014 HealthFocus USA Trend Study,” the percentage of people that believes it’s possible to be overweight and still be healthy has fallen from 45% to 38% since 2008. So consumers understand there is cause for concern.
However, in the study on solutions for weight management, only 39% of the obese population wanted to lose weight because they were concerned about high blood pressure or diabetes, whereas 78% wanted to lose weight because they didn’t like the way they looked, and 69% because they didn’t like how their clothes fit.
So while the knowledge exists that excess weight too often relates to health issues, and people are likely to say they want to lose weight to improve their general health, they either are not aware of the specific risks, or the risk is just not enough to motivate them to prolonged action or a continuous healthy lifestyle.
Fifty percent of people lose interest in a weight loss regimen within four weeks regardless of weight status. Sixty three percent need to see noticeable results in two weeks or they get discouraged. If a healthy rate of loss is 1-2 pounds per week then there is a gap between the time necessary to make noticeable changes and the time available before interest is lost. However, the gap is not insurmountable, as more than 50% of respondents consider noticeable results to be 1-6 pounds.
Weight loss programs would be better off not telling people what the expected rate of loss is per week, but rather asking them what would truly make them happy and working toward that. It is not entirely possible, nor necessarily unhealthy, for an individual to lose 6 pounds in two weeks. It likely is not sustainable or even lasting at that rate, but there is time enough to teach people about healthy eating and sustainable weight loss when they are further along the path and more committed. If they’ve dropped out of the program completely, that opportunity won’t be there. So understand the short-term outcomes that define their success and keep setting and celebrating those short-term achievements.
Emotion & Weight Management
For many, weight management should actually begin with psychology, more than with food or fitness. The reasons people eat very often have nothing to do with hunger, so the needs to address go beyond satiety. Half of survey respondents in the HealthFocus weight segmentation study said that nearly every day they eat just because they are in front of the TV. Thirty four percent eat just for something to do and 50% eat something because it looks good. This is nearly every day, not once in a while. In order to change the habit of eating for entertainment, the habit has to be replaced with something else.
Change is so difficult because it’s multifaceted. When asked why healthy weight was difficult to maintain, 44% of respondents said “stress.” There are many emotions associated with weight—and not for a minority of people either. Out of the 1,880 participants in the study, which segmented weight managers based on their attitudes, only 19% were categorized as “Active Maintainers” while 37%, the largest segment, were “Emotional Seekers.” There were five total segments in the outcome. Active Maintainers can be defined as well adjusted, proactive health managers who maintain a fairly consistent healthy lifestyle. Emotional Seekers, on the other hand, have significant emotion tied up in weight loss. Forty four percent of them said a key reason they can’t lose weight is that they love to eat and don’t want to give it up; 46% want to lose weight because they are disgusted with themselves.
Another aspect of emotional eating is perception. Only 32% of study respondents were in a normal body mass index (BMI) range, but of those, more than half thought they were heavier than they should be. So not only are there people who should lose weight who don’t know it, there are also people who shouldn’t lose weight who don’t know it as well. That leads to discouragement as it’s hard to succeed when you’ve so long thought weight had the upper hand.
One part of the very complex solution to this issue clearly has to do with deep consumer understanding and addressing needs that are holistic, because the problem is so multi-faceted.
It is not logical to discuss overweight and obesity as if they are the same thing, or to discuss people as if they are all defined by the fact they are overweight or obese and that somehow makes them attitudinally homogenous. If someone is an Active Maintainer, they need some knowledge of what to do, tracking tools, variety in their exercise and a little encouragement in order to be successful. If someone is an Emotional Seeker, they probably need a network of support, to exercise with friends, share recipes, make connections, replace habitual eating with other “hobbies,” learn to deal with stress and learn about fast, convenient and healthy solutions. It’s a lifestyle change, which is no easy feat, but it’s a disservice to let people believe otherwise.
Barbara Katz is president of HealthFocus International, a company that researches consumer needs in health and nutrition. For more information on any of the studies mentioned herein, contact email@example.com.