The skinny on the future of the US weight loss industry

February 24, 2014
5 min read


Recently, leaders from the weight loss industry met for an informal, candid discussion of issues facing consumers today and what it means for the weight loss industry.  Mintel was present and here is some of what we learned.


What technology and the internet have done for an individual’s weight loss journey is of particular interest. Because it can be an extremely private thing for some people, online tools and apps offer anonymity and a community at the same time. Mintel finds that currently 11% of consumers use an app to track food intake, but another 22% are interested in trying an app.

Mintel also shows the current uptake on some of these new methods of managing one’s health are low now (10% and under), but interest is there. 40% of people would like to upload a photo or send information to a doctor to be diagnosed without having to do an in-person exam. 42% would chat online with a doctor or pharmacist and 39% like the idea of a “self-serve” clinic at retail locations where someone can treat symptoms, such as headache, fever, etc.

The Consumer 

Obesity and weight loss are significant problems which means there is plenty of room for all of the companies out there, along with the newcomers. There is no one-size fits all solution. Some people need something very structured, where the food arrives at the door and others need something more flexible. If you imagine a spectrum that extends from DIY exercisers to bariatric surgery and other extreme treatments, most consumers bounce around different options.

Competitors in the weight loss industry often have an “or” mentality (e.g. an app or a program, exercise or diet) but need to adopt an “and” mentality. Since weight loss success or failure is driven by the individual’s motivations, it is likely a combination of tools will be the winner.

Community Value

The value of a community has been emphasized in the weight loss community for years. Relative newcomers to the space, apps are no different: community players (those that participate in the social aspects of the app) are more successful than single players. People trust their peers. Get them to have success and then they will advocate for you and refer new customers into your program. According to Mintel, one third of consumers look to friends and family for their health and weight management information.

Like every other industry, weight loss companies are trying to determine how to utilize all the information available about consumers. With the introduction of sophisticated monitoring devices like Fitbit and Nike Fuelband there is more personalized data than ever.

Government’s Role

Classifying obesity as a disease has progressed the conversation on a national level and some states’ ACA health care programs do cover bariatric surgery to help address the issue. What is missing is the middle ground, before surgery is the only choice. This gap is an opportunity for the weight loss industry to form a lobbying group and convince legislators that they offer an option to reversing obesity before surgery.

While government programs are trying to address the issue, Mintel finds 82% of Americans hold people themselves most responsible for the obesity epidemic. More than half also look to fast food restaurants and food manufacturers, while only 26% find the government responsible. And with specific questions of government intervention, consumers do not feel that bans and restrictions are helpful—58% do not support restrictions on ‘unhealthy’ food and 65% do not support taxes on ‘unhealthy’ food.

Data and Privacy

Can all that data be used to design personal weight loss plans at scale? If we know what people eat, when they eat, how much they eat, if they exercise, what type of exercise, how long they are sleeping, what restaurants they go to and where they shop, we can use this data to inform custom recommendations. With enough subscribers, companies can also trend their data and predict the type of program that will be successful for each individual dieter.

Of course right along with the benefits of crunching all that data, consumers are concerned about what is shared, how to interpret it and who owns it. It is generally accepted that there is no expectation of privacy amongst young people; in fact Mintel finds that among these “digital natives” just one fifth of teens agree they are worried about their privacy on social networks.  But for the older population, transparency is essential. Being clear with consumers about how their data will be used and shared will help build trust.

Another crucial piece to the data puzzle is educating consumers in how to use and interpret their own data. Why does portion control work? What does the sleep analysis from my FitBit tell me, should I be worried? Above all, if you’re not working with your consumers’ interest in mind, it will be a losing battle.


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