At Nutrition Business Journal (NBJ), we consigned weight loss to the “third rail" of supplements: dangerous space that regulators, reporters and legislators eye with vigilance and vehemence. In retrospect, we were wrong.
The third rail implies instant death, and yet the weight loss category lives on.
Call it the category that can’t be killed, though its heart is bristling with stakes. Inefficacy and everything from jitters to outright danger have not killed weight loss, but it has been wounded. NBJ estimates weight loss supplement pills growing by 1.6 percent in 2016, after going negative the year before. To put that in perspective, weight loss supplement pills sales soared at 20-percent growth in 2001. Now the ephedra days are long gone, and Dr. Oz drowned the pill concept in a murky sea of raspberry ketones and Garcinia cambogia. There is a sucker born every minute, but those suckers have Google now. Make no mistake, it’s still a US$2.1 billion business, but the trendline is obvious and could get steeper. Short of serious science-backed innovation, the pill category, and really the whole notion of “weight loss" in supplements, could be on life support at some point.
Maybe it’s time to let it die.
At NBJ, we are adding standing in line with our stake. We no longer track a “weight loss" category. We now track “weight management." That’s semantics to a point, but that point is worth making. Others are making it and people are finally listening, as the sale figures suggest.
The industry needs to listen too, of course. It might hear some encouraging news.
Looking at the weight loss category as weight management allows brands to wire in a lifestyle theme that promises a longer life cycle for their products. Weight loss is something you give up when it doesn’t work. Weight management is, very realistically, a lifelong pursuit. That’s part of why we’ve renamed, and re-envisioned, the category. Envisioning weight management as part of a lifestyle that includes active nutrition puts it in a very different light on a totally different shelf. We haven’t started calling sports nutrition “active nutrition," but check back with us in a few years.
Perhaps the biggest ingredient of change in weight management is protein. Protein has become “the last macronutrient standing." Carbohydrates never recovered from the Atkins era. You can still buy low-carb versions of almost everything. Some even blame “fat free" for rising obesity rates, when they’re not blaming something else. Fat itself may be making a comeback of sorts. Dave Asprey made fat cool again with Bulletproof Coffee. It’s grass-fed butter, but it’s still butter, in coffee, a product trend nobody could have predicted. Despite the hype, it’s probably a product nobody should be taking a bet on going past a fad, either. The ketogenic diet, with its deadeye focus on fat, is tiptoeing in from the fringes, but NBJ is doubtful of the longevity there. Hardcore diets are hard to follow.
But protein still has a glow. We’re not getting enough of it, experts say. We can’t get enough of it, the CrossFit crowd claims. As sports nutrition crawled out of the gym and into the shopping bag in the backseat of the soccer mom’s minivan, protein has effectively become a weight loss supplement. It builds muscle, and everybody knows muscle burns fat, right? The thermogenic effect of some weight loss pills promises to boost metabolism, but protein really does. And it keeps doing it when it’s incorporated into the “active" part of active nutrition.
All of this makes sports nutrition and weight management difficult to separate into two categories. While protein sales grew at 6.3 percent in 2016, weight management meal replacement drinks grew at 7.2 percent, not far behind the 7.5 percent for all sports nutrition products. We’d be surprised if everybody incorporating protein into their lose-it-or-keep-it-off strategy was looking for the words “weight loss" on their tubs of protein powder or smoothie mix. They may not want to see the words at all.
Protein has moved into everything from pancakes to ice cream. It’s not even a trend anymore. It’s a way of life.
How people live that life in the day-to-day/minute-to-minute scope is a trickier part of weight management. NEAT or “non-exercise activity thermogenesis" is emerging as the unseen and somewhat effortless piece in weight management. NEAT is the mundane physicality of living in the world;, everything from walking to the car and mopping the floor to fidgeting at your desk creates a slow burn for calories that adds up. It’s what weight loss researchers are talking about now. That low-level energy expenditure has turned out to be a key difference in people who lose weight or never gain it in the first place, and the suffering legions waiting for a flicker of hope on the bathroom scale. Consider those “naturally thin" people you envy. They don’t sit still, even when they are at their standing desks (which you should have by now).
But “supports fidgeting" would be a difficult claim to justify, and that’s what coffee is for anyway. The better play might likely come from effectively linking nutrition plans to the millions of Fitbits sitting in nightstand drawers nationwide. STYR Labs is doing that with an activity monitor that prescribes vitamins and a specific amount of protein, but there is plenty of white space here. Counting steps is boring until it becomes more actionable information. X steps + Y protein equals “you can have dessert tonight" is a formula people could get behind, but sports nutrition and the weight management category have only flirted with wearables so far. With everybody in third grade and older carrying a smartphone that tracks movement, it’s not hard to see a smart company plugging its products into that 24/7 feedback.
That’s innovation at the digital level. Innovation at the ingredient level isn’t stopping, but the sights have been lowered to target a more shallow trajectory. There’s not a ton of innovation left for green tea and caffeine in the post-ephedra age. The sales show that. But don’t rule out the appeal of formulations that could boost metabolism more subtly, something closer to NEAT than intervals on the bleacher steps. InterHealth and ChromaDex are targeting metabolism with ingredients that kick-start mitochondria and subcellular mechanisms that drive metabolic function. Sub-jitter thermogenic branded ingredient versions of cinnamon and capsaicin also have promise at the slow-burn end of manipulating the metabolism. Again, pair it with the right app and by-the-numbers progress reports, match it to a deeper product line, and move it into the lifestyle column.
All of this is a reminder that weight management is the new reality. Promising pounds off in any time frame quicker than gradual is going to draw eye rolling, especially in the age of the cord-cutter when cable subscriptions are predicted to plummet and there won’t be many eyeballs left for those insufferable infomercials. We have entered the age of influencer marketing, and the number of influencers eager to put their Twitter following on questionable ingredients is likely low. Integrity and transparency are integral to the influencer community. Instead, tech-connected protein and supplements to tick up but not “boost" metabolism don’t just make sense because that’s a palatable promise. They make sense because that’s basically all that really works.
It’s not about weight loss any more, at least not past the two-week part of the “Lose 10 pounds in two weeks!" pitch. It’s about weight management. It’s about lifestyle. And lifestyle is about people sticking with something over the long haul.
And potentially sticking with a product or brand on that journey.
Looking for more on weight loss ingredients and how to target consumers with appropriate messaging? Join us with Rick Polito for the Tackling Weight Management with Nutrition workshop on Tuesday, Sept. 26, at SupplySide West 2017. The Workshop is underwritten by NNB.
As Nutrition Business Journal's editor in chief, Rick Polito writes about the trends, deals and developments in the natural nutrition industry, looking for the little companies coming up and the big money coming in. An award-winning journalist, Polito knows that facts and figures never tell the whole story and that the story of this industry has always been about people.