Diet companies see gains as Americans try to drop pandemic pounds
By Julie Creswell
Maybe it was the frozen pizza. Or the cheesy snack crackers she mindlessly nibbled on as she worked from home over the past year. Or those darn cookies.
Whatever the cause, Jessica Short stepped onto the scale this spring and found she was 25 pounds heavier than before the pandemic.
“I had to leave the house for several days in a row and realized then that none of my pants fit,” said Short, 39, a conservation program assistant in Lansing, Michigan.
Determined not to buy a whole new wardrobe, Short signed up for her first weight-loss program in early April. In three weeks, she was down 5 pounds using the Noom app.
“My goal is to lose the whole 25 pounds,” she said.
While some spent the year of the pandemic creating healthy meals or riding their Pelotons for hours, many others managed their anxiety and boredom through less healthy means. They spent the pandemic sitting on their couches, wearing baggy sweatsuits, drinking chardonnay and munching on Cheetos.
Now, as the weather warms up across the country and people venture out of their homes and back into public or return to offices, many are looking to lose their pandemic pounds.
The desire to lose that weight is the diet industry’s gain. In recent weeks and months, companies that sell plans to help lose weight have seen jumps in new business.
The privately held Noom, which offers customized health plans on its app starting at $59 a month, has seen that app downloaded nearly 4 million times in the United States in the past year, making it one of the most downloaded health and fitness apps, according to Apptopia.
Similarly, with access to many of its studios all over the world restricted for much of the past year, WW International, formerly known as Weight Watchers, reported last week that it had 4.2 million digital subscribers, a 16% jump from a year earlier.
And the publicly traded Medifast, which runs a coaching-and-meal-replacement plan called Optavia, projected last week that its revenue would top $1.4 billion this year, a doubling from 2019. Demand is so high that customers are reporting delays in their orders and shortages of popular foods, and bidding wars have popped up on eBay for out-of-stock snacks. One lot of 10 Optavia Sweet Blueberry Biscuits sold on eBay for $99 with shipping last week, for instance, and 14 packets of Caramel Macchiato Shakes sold for $94.
While the body-positivity movement has gained momentum and much of the diet industry was hit hard last year by the pandemic, it is still a $61 billion machine that attracts millions of Americans each year, according to the analysis firm Research and Markets.
Many of these companies shy away from using the dreaded four letter word — diet — to describe what they sell, instead leaning into updated phrases like “health” and “wellness” to promote their programs.
“We see COVID as accelerating trends around health and wellness that already existed and will persist long after, and we believe that the desire to live a healthier lifestyle and placing a prioritization on one’s health is permanent,” a spokeswoman for Noom said in a statement.
It is clear that numerous people put on weight during the pandemic. A small study of individuals under shelter-in-place orders found that they gained more than a half a pound every 10 days. If they continued to live as if they were in lockdown conditions, they could have put on 20 pounds over the year, concluded the authors of the study, which was published in March in the peer-reviewed JAMA Network Open.
Still, critics of many of the popular weight-loss programs note that while people are likely to lose weight if they follow the strict guidelines of meal-replacement plans, for many that weight will eventually come back.
“If you have a wedding to go to in two weeks, a meal-replacement program, for instance, can be helpful,” said Susan Roberts, a professor of nutrition at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University and a professor of psychiatry at the university’s School of Medicine. “The problem is, it doesn’t train people how to eat when the program ends, so weight regain is pretty common.”
Roberts developed her own weight loss diet, called the Instinct diet, that aims to retrain people’s brains around food. She claims participants on her plan achieve weight loss by reducing hunger and unhealthy cravings.
Despite the criticism, many people coming out of the pandemic and preparing to reenter the world are turning to the diet industry for help.
After spending much of the past year holed up in her apartment in Austin, Texas, studying for her doctorate in nursing from the University of Oklahoma, Brenda Olmos, 31, realized the steady stream of takeout food and snacks she had been eating had resulted in an additional 15 pounds. In early April, she signed up for the Optavia plan and quickly lost 4.5 pounds.
“I had tried intermittent fasting, and I couldn’t stop thinking about food because I couldn’t have it,” Olmos said. “I tried keto, but I couldn’t stop thinking about carbs. I’m giving myself six months to lose 30 pounds.”
Likewise, Stacey Moskowitz, 57, a retired elementary schoolteacher from New City, New York, said she had tried many other diets over the years.
“I would lose the weight, and then it would inch back,” she said. “I exercised a lot and lost some weight, but not as much for the amount of effort I was putting in.”
She became concerned about her overall health after she contracted COVID-19 in late February 2020. When she began seeing her weight creep back up last fall, Moskowitz decided to try Optavia. She has since lost 37 pounds and hopes to drop an additional 20 to 25 pounds.
“This is not about me looking a certain way or wearing a certain outfit,” she said. “I’m not going to put on a bikini. It’s about my health.”
Moskowitz said there was one problem with the Optavia program: It has gotten so popular the company has struggled to fulfill orders.
“I had a particular shake, the Tropical Fruit Smoothie, that I liked. I had it for a month, and now it’s gone,” Moskowitz said, noting that she has become dependent on the program, which costs $400 a month and provides five of her daily six meals. “You order every month, and it’s taking them two weeks to get the order to you. And I know some people are ordering extra food and hoarding because they’re worried they won’t get their next order in time.”
Last week, executives at Medifast told Wall Street analysts that they hoped to have expanded manufacturing by the end of the second quarter and distribution by the end of the third to meet demand.
“I’m very happy with the program,” Moskowitz said. “But I’m very nervous about whether I’ll get my next order in time.”