Insights

A Widening Market The obese consumer in the U.S.
Article

A Widening Market The obese consumer in the U.S.

By: Doug Anderson, EVP, Research & Development, Nielsen Consumer Panel Services

SUMMARY: More consumers are obese than ever before, and the future does not look bright. Consumers have responded by checking nutrition labels more and embracing creative weight-loss methods. But the level of concern about weight and healthy lifestyles varies by consumer segment. A solid understanding of obese consumers and their self perceptions may prove to be key in helping marketers create products and programs that tackle this problem head on.

While much has been written about the increasing rate of obesity of the U.S, the fact is, Americans are gaining more weight than anyone else in the world. Based on Body Mass Index (BMI)—the most widely used diagnostic tool to identify obesity, which is a measurement of a person’s weight relative to height—over 32% of Americans are obese, ranking first among the larger countries in the world based on the most recent (2004) national surveys compiled by the World Health Organization (WHO).

A growing problem

In 1985, most U.S. states did not track BMI, and among the 20 that did, only eight had obesity rates above 10%. Just a decade later, when all states reported this information, no state had an obesity rate below 10% and most of the Midwest and Southeast reported rates of 15% to 19%. The increases only accelerated over the following decade. By 2006, almost half of all states had rates of 25% or higher and only three had rates below 20%.

Certain demographics are at a greater risk for obesity than others…

The future is fatter

Certain demographics are at a greater risk for obesity than others. Non-Hispanic blacks are the heaviest race/ethnic group, with obesity rates over 40% higher than the U.S. average, according to The National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), conducted by the Center for Disease Control (CDC). Hispanics rank second, with a rate 10% higher than average. By gender, women represent 54% of the obese population. By age, obesity peaks in the 55–64 range.

There is much disagreement in the academic literature about the health implications of being overweight or obese. Many studies have failed to find strong links between being overweight and higher risks of disease. However, the studies that look at the obese population, particularly the very obese, are clearer. Some studies have suggested that if rates of obesity continue to climb, in particular among younger people, then the U.S. could begin to see reductions in life expectancy, wiping out the gains of the past several decades.

Obesity rates among younger cohorts are the most troubling…

It is, in fact, the obesity rates among younger cohorts that are the most troubling. Children have become obese in greater numbers. From 1963–1970, 4% of children age 6–11 were obese. In 2003–2004, that rate grew five-fold to 19%—or analyzed another way—an astonishing one in five children. Higher rates of obesity among children and among younger adults (rates of obesity among 20–34 year olds have doubled for men and quadrupled for women over the past 40 years) means that people will live with the health risk factors obesity brings for a much longer period than obese persons today, most of whom were not overweight in their 20s, but gained weight later in life.

Conspicuous consumption

It is no surprise that diet and exercise—or lack thereof—is a big contributor to why obesity is so prevalent in the U.S. today, but this is not the whole story. Pure demographics are at work. The population is older than ever before and Americans tend to be fatter when older. Women are heavier, and because they live longer than men, they make up a higher share of the older population. Lastly, Hispanics—the fastest growing immigrant group in the U.S.—tend to have higher obesity rates.

However, the undeniable truth is that there has been a decrease in physical activity and this has occurred at the same time that food consumption has increased, which is the predominant reason why weight gain is occurring at such alarming rates.

The average American consumes 15–20 more pounds of fat a year…

The average American consumes 15–20 more pounds of fat a year compared to a century ago. Since the 1970s, eating out has comprised an increasing percentage of food consumed by Americans. This has come at the expense of food eaten in the home, resulting in weight gain because of the higher caloric content of food served in restaurants. According to a University of Minnesota study, a child consumes 770 calories per meal when eating out, compared to 420 in the home.

The blame game

Consumers actually “fess-up” and take responsibility for a great deal of the weight gain. According to a 2008 Nielsen survey, an overwhelming 81% agreed or strongly agreed that weight gain is attributable to eating too much and not exercising enough. Further, 68% of consumers disagreed or disagreed strongly with the statement that they cannot find healthy food in their grocery store.

Consumers hold food companies and their advertising partially responsible…

However, consumers concede that they are not the only ones to blame. Consumers hold food companies and their advertising partially responsible. Close to three-quarters of consumers believe that people are encouraged to eat less-healthy food by advertising, and that these companies should provide healthier food. Fast-food companies, on the other hand, get off surprisingly easy and are not seen as nearly as important a player in the obesity blame game as food companies. In the survey, fast-food companies and the government fall into the second tier of blame.

Checking labels

While two-thirds of consumers claim to find healthy foods in their grocery store, they may not be choosing them. Presumably, nutrition labels play a role in helping consumers determine which foods are healthy, but North Americans, and global consumers in general, do not check them often according to a Nielsen Global Report on Consumer and Nutritional Labeling. (See sidebar for a free copy of the full report.)

In fact, only one-quarter of global consumers always check nutrition facts. When buying a product for the first time, 37% do so, and surprisingly, only 15% check labels when “dieting/trying to lose weight.” North Americans lead in checking labels when buying for the first time (42%) and when dieting (23%), but are a few points behind the average in the “always check” category (21%).

Consumers’ hesitancy to check labels is their inability to understand them…

Ignorance is bliss

Perhaps some of consumers’ hesitancy to check labels is their inability to understand them. While 67% of North American consumers claim to understand labels “mostly”, this is well above the global average of 44%. Indeed, a relatively small percentage of consumers may check nutrition labels today, but two-thirds of consumers in North America and around the world claim to check them more than they did two years ago. This increase in scrutiny is an important trend for marketers, as it presents opportunities for better labeling to drive sales.

Most do not agree with the cutoff for obesity…

Self perceptions versus reality

Government standards for defining overweight and obese are based on BMI with a rate of 25 to 29 considered overweight and 30 or higher considered obese. Consumers tend to agree with the definition for overweight, with 67% agreeing that they are slightly overweight at a BMI of 25 (rising to 83% who feel they are slightly overweight at a BMI of 29). However, most do not agree with the cutoff for obesity. At a BMI of 30, only 16% of consumers consider themselves very overweight. It is not until a BMI of 35—well above the cutoff—that a majority (55%) of consumers consider themselves very overweight. Most consumers seem to base how heavy they believe they are on landmark weights. For example, there is a substantial increase in how concerned people are about their weight when it passes 200 pounds.

Marketers have a clear opportunity to not only create messaging that speaks to the consumer mindset, but to educate them on the reality. To effectively target the overweight/obese consumer, Nielsen defined six consumer groups, screened by a BMI of 25 or higher, and asked questions about the impact of weight to their daily life, the information sources they rely on, and the past history of weight problems.

The two most extreme segments—one with the lowest average BMI and the one with the highest—show a clear gender imbalance with men dominating the BMI-defined overweight group and women dominating the BMI-defined obese segment. The four middle-ground groups, however, highlight the differences in the obese population. Two male groups, with an average BMI of 30, were divided into a younger and older segment. Both groups believe that their weight “does not limit their lives.” Interestingly, the younger group believes they are slightly overweight and are open to contra medication. By contrast, the older group is more concerned about weight and favors diet and exercise, but is open to alternatives.

Among the two groups that skew female, the younger segment, with an average BMI of 33, suffers from embarrassment due to weight and prefers medication. The older group, with an average BMI of 34, is primarily concerned with health, makes doctor visits a priority and favors diet and exercise.

Creative thinking

Better nutritional labeling on packages, increased health awareness programs in schools, and making wiser food choices are “no-brainer” strategies to help stem the tide of obesity. However, when the Nintendo Wii Fit hit the market in May 2008, a successful union between the hugely popular—and typically sedentary—video gaming craze with health & fitness was born. The game, which promotes balance, strength and aerobic exercise by tracking BMI through its dual-functioning balance board and scale, was a breakthrough.

According to Nielsen, online buzz chatter about the game spiked among “mainstream” Internet users around the time of the launch in the U.S. to nearly match the New Year’s resolution buzz around treadmills, an exercise staple. Sentiment has been overwhelmingly positive with many consumers calling Fit “exciting” and “addictive.” Almost one-fifth of message board posts about the game discussed intent to purchase.

The general assumption is that videogames are only used by kids…

And while the general assumption is that videogames are only used by kids, the Wii Fit phenomenon has challenged that conventional wisdom. Based on message board posts collected by Nielsen, consumers have embraced the game as a fun addition to dieting and workout regimens. This implies opportunities for marketers in making weight loss a game.

Knowledge is power

Based on Nielsen’s research, it seems likely that the length of time a person has been overweight, or at least whether they have always felt themselves to be so, is key to self perceptions and attitudes. Older consumers, who were probably not heavy when they were young, but have grown heavier over the years, are more concerned about it than younger consumers who are already starting out heavy.

As society continues to tackle the increasing problem of obesity, a deeper understanding of the present and future consumer is necessary in order to design programs and products that not only educate consumers, but fit their lifestyles and needs.