Americans Aren’t Talking About Diets Anymore

What hundreds of millions of social media posts told us about the evolving consumer opinion around nutrition and the rise of holistic health

Just before New Years Eve 2016, the popular lifestyle magazine Women’s Health announced a bold resolution. After years of plastering its cover with promises of miracle diets and weight-loss secrets — “Bikini body in 2 weeks!”, “Drop two sizes!” — the magazine was ditching the over-promising carnival-barker approach. Instead, the magazine’s cover would now be studded with teasers about attaining “wellness” and “toned, strong, balanced” bodies.

In a now-famous letter to readers titled “Peace Out Bikini Body,” the magazine’s editor in chief, Amy Keller Laird, explained how customer feedback laid the groundwork for the magazine’s abrupt about-face.

You told us you don’t love the words shrink and diet, and we’re happy to say we kicked those to the cover curb ourselves over the past year,” Laird wrote. “But we’re still using two other phrases —“Bikini Body” and “Drop Two Sizes”— that you want retired. Since our goal is always to pump you up, and never to make you feel bad, here’s our pledge: They’re gone.”

Photo Credit: Women’s Health Magazine

Sensing a consumer trend away from fad diets and toward a more nuanced view of weight and holistic health, Laird realized she had to drag the magazine into the 21st century. Consumers’ opinions about wellness and nutrition were changing, she realized, and it was her responsibility to make sure Women’s Health kept up.

Laird ended her letter with frank rallying cry: “Women in 2016 want stories that, as one reader so aptly suggested, ‘focus on wellness and less on unrealistic weight-loss goals.’”

This wasn’t a case of the tail wagging the dog. Women’s Health wasn’t trying to change the conversation around weight loss; it was trying to echo it. Laird knew all too well that consumer opinion about weight loss had already shifted — Women’s Health needed to shift as well.

Social media is the perfect way to understand how public opinion about nutrition is changing. Every day, millions of consumers post to social media and forums about their opinions, goals and questions about nutrition and weight loss. We analyzed hundreds of millions of these conversations between 2010 and 2017 to uncover evolving consumer trends about health and nutrition.

It didn’t take long for us to realize that something big was happening. While losing weight is still important to the modern consumer, the health equation has become much more nuanced and diverse. Today, drastic-change diets like Atkins and South Beach have taken a back seat to a more holistic discussion about nutrition, weight loss, and healthy bodies.

Specifically, we found three ways that the consumer conversation around diets has changed since 2010:

  • The end of the silver bullet diet
  • Rethinking weight loss
  • The destigmatization of fat

The end of the silver bullet diet

It wasn’t long ago that Americans hopped from one strange diet to the next. Cabbage soup, Hollywood cleanses, volumetrics — every week seemed to usher in a new, ever stranger diet. But recently, nutritionists, doctors, and consumers themselves have started to dismiss these magic diets and replace them with a more holistic approach to weight loss and healthfulness. Instead of pinballing from one quick fix to the next, Americans have started to analyze and tweak their eating and exercise habits — reimagining their relationship with both in the process.

A recent (and excellent) article from The New York Times Magazine dove into the evolving consumer opinions surrounding dieting and body mass. In the article, America’s standard bearer of dieting, Oprah, talks about seeing these trends mature herself.  

“Oprah explained that she had done everything so far — everything! By 1985!” the article reports. “She had done the banana-hot-dog-egg diet (in which you just eat a banana and a hot dog and an egg). She had done the pickles-and-peanut-butter diet (in which all you eat are pickles and peanut butter).”

The article goes on: “[Oprah] had seen the cultural changes for years. She knew that you were no longer supposed to say that you wanted to diet or be thinner. You had to want ‘‘fitness’’ and ‘‘strength’’ and just general health.”

As usual, Oprah is right on the money. When we looked at the nutrition conversation on social media, we saw the same evolution she did.

Over time, specific diets have fallen out of favor with consumers, generating less conversation and more negative sentiment as the years have passed.

Since 2010, the social conversation around many of the major diet fads — like paleo, Atkins and NutriSystem — has dried up. In 2010, three-quarters of the conversation around diet options was made up by posts about raw food, South Beach, Atkins and paleolithic diets. Today, all of those options combined make up less than half of the overall discussion.

What are they being replaced by? The answer is larger, more encompassing lifestyle changes. Not nearly as many silver bullets, far more balance. In 2016, 57% of the overall diet conversation was about “lifestyle changes.” Indeed, the discussion about nutrition-focused lifestyle changes has grown a whopping 60x since 2010. 

When we dug into the nutrition conversation (and the “lifestyle changes” contained therein) we found that Americans are still very much concerned with health and nutrition, but the way they talk about has moved beyond specific diets. Instead of, say, talking about a diet where people stick to a small group of “healthy” foods or food groups — protein, grapefruits, unprocessed foods — consumers are talking about the general ingredients and additives they want removed from their diets.

Consumers have started giving up dairy, gluten, and meat in record numbers. The reasons behind this trend are varied and idiosyncratic, but the central thrust propelling the shift is clear: health is interconnected, and consumers are finding that diet changes not only influence weight but play a crucial role in more general health — mind, body, even environmental.

Indeed, when we looked at the conversations surrounding “free” diets (gluten-, dairy-, meat-) we found that, unlike the aforementioned fad diets, these food choices have been growing significantly in the last few years.

This chart helps us understand what is replacing the ‘silver-bullet diet’ mentality. Increasingly, consumers are thinking of their diets as a multifaceted, interconnected network of nutritional options. The rise of gluten-, dairy- and meat-free diets is partially about weight control, but it’s also about much more.

Indeed, our analysis of the social conversations around nutrition made one thing quite clear: Weight loss has steadily slid down the list of nutrition priorities in the last few years.

Consumers are deprioritizing weight loss

In the letter Amy Keller Laird wrote to Women’s Health readers, she stated very plainly something that she’d heard readers bring up a lot recently: that weight loss is one part of a multi-faceted equation, and that the obsession with “optimal” weight and clothing size was doing more harm than good.

“I hate how women’s magazines emphasize being skinny or wearing bikinis as the reason to be healthy,” Laird said, quoting a reader letter. The decision to nix “drop two sizes” was done, in part, Laird said, because it implied that there is a specific body type and size people should be shooting for.

Consumers agree that this single-minded focus on weight is incomplete, and when they talk about nutritional choices, they talk about a variety of results.

As you can see, “weight loss” comes up in all of these dietary conversations, but toward the bottom of the list for each. Instead, a variety of overall health issues — allergies, general health benefits, skin problems, etc. — are all part of the equation.

It wasn’t long ago that a person’s weight was seen as the single metric most correlated with health and happiness, but that has been changing quickly. Now, digestion, wellness, energy and more are all (roughly) equally important factors.

All of this raises a natural (and related) question: What happened to fat?

The war against the war against fat

Not long ago, fat was public enemy number one. Being healthy meant not being fat, and eating healthy meant not eating fat. We’ve talked quite a bit about the first part — consumers now talk less about using diets to lose weight and more about how their nutritional choices impact their overall health and wellness — but the second part is just as interesting.

In recent years, fat the food component has been put on a rehabilitation tour. In fact, the term “good fats” has emerged as a common topic on social, and one that is increasingly viewed favorably.

When we compared the health topics that brought joy to people, we found that good fats are rising the most quickly, now accounting for nearly as much social conversation as natural foods and more than vitamins.

The fact that consumer opinion around good fats helps us see some larger things more clearly. Put simply: There are fewer heroes and villains in the nutrition conversation. Instead, consumers are talking more about the complex relationship between their food and exercise routines and their bodies.

Conclusion: The bigger picture

One result around of the decreasing emphasis on silver-bullet diets is consumers’ desire for more control over their nutritional choices. Instead of being beholden to The Next Big Diet, they are talking about the overall choices they can make to look and feel healthy.

For some consumers, this means being happier with their current weight. For others it means prioritizing ‘strength’ and ‘balance’ over a shrinking waist. For others still, it means simply being more mindful of the types of food their eating.

One compelling answer for this is about consumers’ growing love for home cooking. Over the last six years, consumers have become much positive about cooking and eating at home, and more negative about eating out or ordering in.

As Americans think more about holistic health and nutrition, they have started to rethink their larger lifestyle choices. Instead of relying on ‘experts’ to inform them about the next miracle diet, they are taking matters into their own hands by cooking more, shaping their overall diet more carefully, and paying less attention to weight as the end-all-be-all of health.

Magazines like Women’s Health have picked up on this trend, but this trend is not just about health-focused publications. Brands — especially that make products related to food and health — must listen to this evolving conversation and find ways to tap into consumers’ emerging desire for a more holistically healthy lifestyle.

For deeper insights into the changing trends in nutrition, download our CPG report below.

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