TAMPA, FL — The diet product and program market is in a turbulent stage, affected by the rising number of bariatric surgeries, the low-carbohydrate food trend, the ban on Ephedra and a higher consumption of diet soft drinks, according to a new report.

Marketdata, a market research firm that has tracked diet products and programs since 1989, released the findings of its biennial study, “The U.S. Weight Loss & Diet Control Market.” This dynamic market has been turbulent since 2002 as several trends soar then decline in popularity. As American obesity rates climb so does its number of dieters. The country now has 71 million dieters and more weight loss programs and options than ever before.

Marketdata found that the whole market was growing two years ago, with no individual segments of the industry contracting. This was a rarity in the weight loss industry. However, this has all changed, and the market has reverted to its cyclical nature, with certain segments up while others suffer. The report revised the company's estimates for the total value of the market to account for weight-loss surgeries.

Bariatric surgeries reached record levels in 2004, representing a $3.5 billion market. However, on Jan. 1, 2005, several major insurers ceased covering these procedures (which average $25,000). Consequently, Marketdata expects the market to fall by 15 percent in 2005, as surgeons and hospitals sort out how to offer financing plans to consumers or get them to pay out of pocket. Growth should resume in 2006.

The report found that the low-carb food trend has peaked and is on the decline. As it wanes, more dieters are returning to structured programs such as Weight Watchers, LA Weight Loss, Jenny Craig and other chains. Marketdata estimated that weight loss center revenues would grow 11 percent to $2 billion. An estimated 7.1 million American dieters use such programs. Small local or regional chains of 10 to 50 centers are growing as well.

“The 2005 diet season will be one characterized by the highest level of dieter confusion and price sensitivity ever,” said Marketdata Research Director John LaRosa. “People are waiting for ‘the next big thing’ in weight loss, as the low-carb craze fades. They may not find it in 2005, since no new ‘magic pills’ will make it to market this year. The prescription diet drug closest to market is Rimonabant, which should hit the U.S. market in 2006.”

The government's ban on Ephedra, one of the main ingredients in OTC diet pills, had a major effect on this market with sales plummeting by 32 percent last year. However, with no new prescription pills to hit the market this year and with the African herb Hoodia Gordonii hot right now, Marketdata expects a substantial rebound and 16 percent growth. By 2008, this segment should grow 11.5 percent per year to $703 million.

Marketdata estimates that 20,500 registered dietitians are offering some form of weight loss program, via their practice or as consultants to health clubs, hospitals, etc. A typical customized, six-month plan will cost $802 on average, based on custom market research and phone surveys. Nutritionists also compete. Their holistic and less medically oriented plans average $643.