A recent report by the market research firm NPD, based on a survey of 5,000 people, found that the number of Americans on weight loss diets was at its lowest rate in decades. As of February 2008, 26% of women and 16% of men surveyed said they were following a weight-loss diet, down from 39% of women and 29% of men in 1990.
At the same time, a 2008 American Dietetic Association survey of nearly 800 adults found that 79% said they aren’t doing more to improve their diets because they're already satisfied with the way they eat; 73% said it's because they don't want to give up their favorite foods.
The good news? They don't have to, say the experts.
"All foods can fit into a healthy diet, as long as you exercise and practice moderation," says Jeannie Gazzaniga Moloo, PhD, RD,a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association.
Healthy Eating vs. Dieting
So why are fewer people going on weight loss diets? One reason, some experts say, may be that they have learned from past mistakes.
Diet books, low-calorie, fat-free, and sugar-free foods abound, but don’t appear to be making a dent in obesity statistics. Many dieters have been lured over and over again by promises of fast weight loss from the latest diet schemes, only to regain the lost weight -- and then some -- as soon as they go off the diet.
The truth is that if your weight loss plan is not sustainable for the long term, it's not worth following, says Michael Dansinger, MD, physician for the NBC reality show TheBiggest Loser.
There's no single, super-popular diet right now, says Cindy Moore, MS, RD, nutrition director for the Cleveland Clinic. "Even when the hot diet bursts onto the scene, just reading it is no guarantee you will lose weight," she adds.
Still another reason, some say, is that, with two out of three Americans overweight, overweight is fast becoming the new "normal." When your friends and family are overweight, your own extra pounds can seem less important.
Indeed, a 2007 study in The New England Journal of Medicine found that people tend to follow suit when their friends and family members become overweight, and likewise when they lose weight.
Better Food, Not More
Trends like the "slow food" movement, an interest in organic foods and in eating foods grown closer to home (being a "locavore") are further shifting the momentum away from foods to avoid to foods to enjoy.
"If you shop at farmers markets, you are going to be buying natural food, not junk food," says Moore.
K. Dunn Gifford, president of the Oldways Preservation Trust, a food issues think tank, says high-quality food is just more satisfying.
"We need to reduce our tendency toward over abundance and realize less food can be more satisfying when you choose foods with intense flavors and taste," Gifford says.
It can be a lot easier and more motivating to focus on what you can eat instead of what you should avoid, experts say.
A study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 2007 reported that obese women who avoided high-fat foods and focused on eating more fruits and vegetables lost 20% more weight that those who only avoided high-fat foods.
So what exactly should you be adding to your diet? Go for more plant foods and whole, unprocessed foods that are rich in nutrients and naturally lower in fat, salt, and sugar, experts say.
Nancy Rodriguez, PhD, RD, a nutrition researcher at the University of Connecticut, says eating lean or low-fat protein at every meal will fill you up and make you less likely to overeat. Likewise, foods like whole grains, fruits, and vegetables -- high in fiber and water content -- are low in calories and help you feel full.
"When you fill up on nutrient-rich fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, low-fat dairy, and other lean protein, there is less room for empty-calorie foods," Rodriguez says.
And what about those foods that taste good but aren't exactly packed with nutrients (except maybe calories)?
"It's OK to enjoy a small serving of those foods once in a while," says American Dietetic Association president Martin Yadrick, MA, RD.
Healthy Eating: Slow Down
Not only what you eat, but how you eat, is important when you're trying to eat healthfully and lose extra pounds, experts say.
One big step toward taking control of your diet is to eat more home-cooked meals.
"When you prepare it, you have total control over what is in the food, you can make it exactly how you like it, and better for you than in restaurants, where you have no idea what is in the food," says Ellie Krieger, RD, host of the Food Network’s Healthy Appetite and author of The Food You Crave.
Also, forget about eating on the run. You'll enjoy your food more and ultimately, eat less, if you eat slowly and savor the flavors, Rodriguez says. Enjoy the conversation at the table, and give your brain time to get the signal that you are comfortably full.
"If you sit down and taste the food, you are more likely to be satisfied with less," she says.