Battle of the Bulge Bucks

From online to the airwaves, the race is on for your diet dollars.

Even as the ball dropped in Times Square on New Year's Eve, a big, bold message rose up — time to start shedding those unwanted holiday pounds. Electronic billboards, a first for some companies, are a sign of just how serious the weight loss businesses are.

The arrival last year of the over-the-counter diet pill Alli has companies that market diets scrambling. NutriSystem has seen new customers drop by 20 percent. Now the company is fighting back.

"It's going to be like the old Coke and Pepsi wars. But it's going to be about over-the-counter versus diet foods," said Phil Lempert of Supermarketguru.com.

WHAT TO KNOW

To boost their appeal, traditional diet companies also are changing their emphasis to healthy living.

"We've moved from diet for appearance to diet for wellness," Lempert said, "It's not just about fitting into clothes, it's about being healthy for [the] next 10, 20, 30 years."

Kevin Eberly, executive vice president of Weight Watchers North America, said, "Consumers told us that increasingly they feel diet weary but weight loss hopeful. And they're looking for options in what they consider to be a culture that is overcome with diet options. Fad diets, quick fixes, restrictive diets. They're looking for things that are more sustainable and manageable over time."

It's not just the diet industry. Food industry giants like Kellogg's are also emphasizing wellness.

According to Kim Miller, the vice president for marketing of Kellogg's Morning Foods Division, "the opportunity to get into the weight management category has gotten to be more and more appealing for a wide range of companies. So what we see is that it really keeps us on our toes every year to up our game in terms of new products we launch."

Companies know they have a very short window to hook bulge battlers. Take a look at Internet traffic from a year ago. Searches using the word "diet" hit rock bottom at Thanksgiving, and spiked Jan. 1 for just four days before dropping off again.

The week following New Year's is, of course, the time when many make their resolutions and, not surprisingly, resolve to eat less and work out more.

Bart Leins noted the relative emptiness of his gym in downtown Washington, D.C., "[After New Year's, the gym] will be packed, and then, in June, it will be like this again."

Randy Sherman, a personal trainer at Results Gym in Washington, D.C., said trainers circle New Year's on their calendars because resolutions often yield new or returning clients to the gym.

"A lot of people do look for shortcuts, be it supplements or products that speed up that process, but there's really no substitute for getting in the gym and working hard. There are no shortcuts — if there were, everyone would be fit and look the way they wanted."

Nutritionists agree there is no way to skip working out and sticking to a diet and exercise plan. Losing weight is simply about eating less calories and exercising.

Eberly of Weight Watchers acknowledged, "There is no magic bullet that we're aware of. We think the only sustainable way of losing and maintaining weight loss is to adopt a healthier lifestyle."

Still, diet companies make or break their bottom line in the first few months of the new year, so consumers can expect a whole lot more of their pitches in the coming weeks.

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