Self brand healthy meals
The health magazine Self has lent its brand name to a new line of meals which aim to help consumers manage their weight and maintain overall health. 

After three decades of increases, adult obesity rates in America remained level in every state except for one, Arkansas, in the past year, according to “F as in Fat: How Obesity Threatens America’s Future 2013,” a report from the Trust for America’s Health (TFAH) and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF). Nevertheless, 13 states reported adult obesity rates above 30%; 41 states had rates of at least 25%, and every state was above 20%, according to the report. (For a historical comparison, no state was above 15% in 1980; no state was above 20% in 1991; in 2000, no state was above 25%; and, in 2007, only Mississippi was above 30%.)

If there is a bright spot, since 2005, there has been some evidence that the rate of increase has been slowing. That year, every state but one experienced an increase in obesity rates; in 2008, rates increased in 37 states. In 2010, rates increased in 28 states, and in 2011, rates increased in only 16 states.

“While stable rates of adult obesity may signal prevention efforts are starting to yield some results, the rates remain extremely high,” said Jeffrey Levi, Ph.D., executive director of TFAH. “Even if the nation holds steady at the current rates, Baby Boomers—who are aging into obesity-related illnesses—and the rapidly rising numbers of extremely obese Americans [already translates] into a cost crisis for the healthcare system and Medicare.”

Rates by gender are now consistent; 10 years ago, there was nearly a six percentage point difference between rates for men and women (men: 27.5%, women: 33.4%); now, rates are nearly the same (men: 35.8%, women: 35.5%). Men’s obesity rates have been climbing faster than women’s for this last decade.

Furthermore, rates of “extreme” obesity have grown dramatically. Rates of adult Americans with a body mass index (BMI) of 40 or higher have grown in the past 30 years from 1.4 to 6.3%—a 350% increase. Among children and teens (2-to-19-year-olds), more than 5.1% of males and 4.7% of females are now severely obese.

In addition to the latest data showing a stable rate for adult obesity, a report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows 18 states and one U.S. territory experienced a decline in obesity rates among preschool children from low-income families. The report provides state-specific trends in obesity rates among children ages 2-4 who are enrolled in federal health and nutrition programs, such as the Special Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children.

Some 31.8% of U.S. adults are now considered clinically obese, an astounding figure, especially considering it is approximately double the U.S. obesity rate registered in 1995, according to CDC data.

The overall problem, however, is not solely with Americans’ weight. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the worldwide prevalence of obesity nearly doubled between 1980-2008, with more than 50% of both men and women in the WHO European Region qualifying as overweight. (Approximately 23% of women and 20% of men were obese.)

The obesity toll is not merely a health crisis; it also bears an economic cost. A United Nations report on global nutrition contends the reality of a fattening planet is dragging down world productivity rates while increasing health insurance costs to the tune of $3.5 trillion dollars per year—or 5% of global gross domestic product (GDP). Mexico, for example, just surpassed U.S. obesity rates with a whopping 32.8% of Mexican adults now considered to be clinically obese. Even Qatar, an oil-rich Arab nation of 250,000 people, is facing an obesity epidemic. Some 45% of Qatari adults are obese, and up to 40% of school children are obese, as well.

The food and beverage industry has responded for years, if not decades, with products intending to promote weight loss, particularly focusing on launches low in calories or fat or carbs, etc. In fact, some of the nation’s largest food companies have cut daily calorie counts by an average of 78 per person, a new study says, more than four times the amount the industry pledged to slash.

According to the RWJF study, manufacturers cut an estimated 6.4 trillion food product calories between 2007-2012. To put 78 calories in perspective, it is about the same as an average cookie or a medium apple, and the federal government estimates an average daily diet at around 2,000 calories. The study said the calories cut averaged out to 78 calories per day for the entire U.S. population.

The 2010 pledge by 16 companies—including General Mills Inc., Campbell Soup Co., ConAgra Foods Inc., Kraft Foods Inc., Kellogg Co., Coca-Cola Co., PepsiCo Inc. and Hershey Co.—was to cut 1 trillion calories by 2012 and 1.5 trillion calories by 2015. When the companies made the pledge in 2010, they said one way they would try to reduce calories would be through a change in portion sizes as an attempt to encourage consumers to eat less. The companies also said they would develop new lower-calorie options and change existing products, so they’d have fewer calories.

Despite these efforts, lower-calorie products are not exactly setting sales records. Statistics show diet soda sales have dropped for the ninth consecutive year, as zero-calorie sweeteners face something of a consumer backlash stemming from press attention (whether justified or not) linking the ingredients with metabolic disorders and other health concerns. Many manufacturers, therefore, are turning to novel ingredients and positionings to set themselves apart and fulfill consumer demands for help in losing weight.

ZenEvo’s FIT Chocolate is described as a healthy chocolate and nutrient compound that regulates adiponectin, a protein used by the body to regulate metabolism. It purportedly causes the body’s fat cells to break up more effectively, helping the body burn fat faster.

Nuzee Inc. may be better known for its functional beverages, but the company has delved into what it terms high-performance coffees with a line of three varieties of Coffee Blenders: Lean, Focus and Escape. The K-Cup compatible coffees promise a full serving of functional ingredients in each cup, featuring benefits that include weight loss, increased focus and a sense of relaxation. The weight-loss option, Lean, includes 400mg of an all-natural green coffee bean extract that promises to help with weight-loss efforts. The company notes subjects in a clinical trial lost an average of 11 pounds in 60 days when consuming a full, 400mg dose of the extract a day.


The Low Down

Of course, the traditional option of choice for dieting consumers has been to reduce, whether it is calories, fat or carbohydrates. The South Beach Diet brand has been incorporated into a number of foods and beverages but has now set its sights on what it terms as “strategic snacking.” More than 50% of Americans snack two to three times a day, the company notes, advising that the “right, well-timed snacks” can help consumers shed pounds and manage weight.

Cape Cod has answered such a snack demand with new popcorn varieties promising 40 calories or fewer per cup. The three flavors in the line are Sea Salt, Kettle Corn and White Cheddar: The first two also are certified-gluten-free.

Fat is the target for Skinny Cow’s merger of candy and ice cream, which can be found in a pair of flavor options which layer low-fat ice cream with candy. Skinny Cow Salted Caramel Pretzel tops low-fat vanilla ice cream with a layer of salty caramel and small pieces of pretzels, all covered in a chocolate coating. Skinny Cow Cookies ‘n Dough features low-fat vanilla ice cream with a cookie-dough layer and cookie bites, along with a chocolate coating. 

The creators behind Self magazine have lent their brand name to a line of frozen meals which promise to help with healthy eating. The Self Healthy Kitchen line, created in collaboration with chef Calvin Harris, CEO of Benevida Food, features ingredients in the magazine’s diet books and weight-loss programs that help burn fat and lose weight. The eight-entrée line includes such options as Southwest Style Chicken Enchilada with Rice and Sweet Potatoes; Garden Chicken Alfredo with Pasta and Vegetables; Grilled Drunken Chicken with Cilantro-Lime Brown Rice; Three Cheese Lasagna with Beef and Marinara; Southwest Style Vegetable Enchilada with Rice and Sweet Potatoes; and Steak with Portobello Mushroom in a Red Wine Sauce.

So, how well do such products and their package labels communicate with the consumer? A Harris Poll of 2,266 adults between February 12-17, 2014, sought to answer the question. Americans show mixed attitudes toward two labels: a majority (57%) feel a “Reduced” claim–a la “Reduced Calories” or “Reduced Fat”–is an indicator of nutritious wares, while fewer than half (45%) put the same stock in claims of “Light” or “Lite.” The term “Guilt Free” is of little use to consumers: 76% indicate the phrase is not helpful in guiding them toward nutrition choices.


Going Forward

Scientists from the Virginia Polytechnic Institute declared they have found that one particular type of antioxidant in cocoa can prevent people from gaining excess weight and lower their blood sugar levels. Andrew P. Neilson and colleagues say that cocoa, the basic ingredient of chocolate, is one of the most flavanol-rich foods.

Previous research has shown flavanols in other foods, such as grapes and tea, can help fight weight gain and type-2 diabetes. However, not all flavanols are created equal. Cocoa has several different kinds of these compounds, so Neilson’s team tested each individually to assess their healthful attributes.

They found that adding one particular set of these compounds, known as oligomeric procyanidins, to the food made the biggest difference in keeping mice’s weight down if they were on high-fat diets. The research was published in the American Chemical Society’s Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry.

New Low-Cal Sweetener Research

The role of low calorie sweeteners (LCS) in weight management and appetite has been a topic of growing public interest in recent years.  Now, a new analysis of research spanning 35 years finds that replacing sugar with low calorie sweeteners helps people lose weight, reduce waist size and decrease body fat.  Importantly, the analysis also shows that low calorie sweeteners do not cause weight gain.

Study results were presented in a press release from McNeil Nutritionals, LLC, maker of Spenda sucralose.

“As overweight and obesity-related health conditions include cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and some types of cancer, it’s critical to identify strategies that help facilitate weight loss or weight maintenance,” says Vanessa Perez, Ph.D., who presented the study abstract at the annual meeting of Experimental Biology, a multidisciplinary scientific meeting. “Based on the gold standard study design in medical research—the randomized controlled trial—the results show that using low calorie sweeteners resulted in statistically significant reductions in body weight, BMI, fat mass, and waist circumference.” 

Dr. Perez and her colleague, Paige E. Miller, Ph.D., M.P.H., conducted a meta-analysis of published studies dating back to 1976. Meta-analysis, a statistical technique that quantitatively combines the findings from multiple, independent studies, was used to assess the effectiveness of low-calorie sweeteners. The benefits of meta-analysis include a consolidated and quantitative review of large, often complex, and sometimes conflicting body of research.

“Conflicting research on low calorie sweeteners and body weight have led to some debate about  the relationship between low calorie sweeteners and body weight,” says Dr. Perez, a managing scientist at the Center for Epidemiology and Computational Biology, Exponent, Inc. “Using meta-analysis techniques, we evaluated 15 randomized controlled trials and nine prospective observational cohort studies to examine the relationship between low calorie sweeteners and body weight and composition.” 

“Data from the randomized controlled trials indicate that substituting low calorie sweeteners in place of sugar does not cause weight gain and may be a useful tool in helping people comply with weight loss and weight management plans,” Dr. Perez explains. “The results also show that use of these sweeteners resulted in a modest, but statistically significant, reduction in all outcomes examined, including body weight, fat mass and waist circumference.  Additionally, the results do not support recent hypotheses that low calorie sweeteners increase appetite and sweet cravings.”

Dr. Perez and her colleague also evaluated results from prospective observational cohort studies, which showed inconsistent results.  The authors note that these studies are limited and difficult to interpret because few observational studies adequately account for potential factors that could impact the outcome, such as a person’s diet and other lifestyle practices. 

Dr. Perez noted that while past reviews of low calorie sweeteners and weight control have been published, the current meta-analysis is the most comprehensive scientific evaluation to date of low calorie sweeteners and body weight and composition. The complete study has been accepted for publication later this year in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. This research was funded by the North American Branch of the International Life Sciences Institute.

Both the American Diabetes Association and the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics support the use of low calorie sweeteners such as sucralose as a useful tool in managing weight and diabetes.