The Skinny on Male ‘Dieting’

On a recent Friday morning, Bill Cohen, 40, walked into an office in midtown, removed his Green Bay Packers jacket, belt and shoes, and stepped onto a scale. One of eight Weight Watchers’ meeting offices in Manhattan (and about 50,000 weekly meetings worldwide), the room was filled with plastic chairs, motivational posters and Weight Watchers brand foods and pedometers.

The room also was filled — with the conspicuous exception of Cohen — with women, about 20 of them in their 20s to 60s, from svelte program longtimers to Rubenesque newbies.

Cohen, who is 5 feet 9 inches tall, weighed in at 186.8 lbs., above his target of 179 lbs. but well below the 236 lbs. he weighed before attending his first Weight Watchers meeting in 2003. Even though Cohen’s mother led Weight Watchers meetings when he was growing up in Hawaii, and his wife, Melanie, went to work for the company several years ago after losing weight on the program, he was hesitant to try it.

“To me, Weight Watchers was just something that women did because the women in my life did it,” says Cohen, a human resources manager for an insurance company. “It’s the society in which we live: Dieting is like a ‘girl’s thing.’ I’m not saying I believe this consciously, but it’s one of those things built into the psyche of our culture, and most dieting products and dieting programs are geared to women.”

But that is beginning to change. In 2007, the company launched Weight Watchers Online for Men, where Cohen and others access male-only discussion boards, articles like “What to Eat at the Ballpark” and workout videos. The Web site aims to draw meeting-averse men into Weight Watchers — and collect a fee of $46.90 for the first month and $16.95 monthly thereafter. Compared to 2006, in 2007, Weight Watchers total male and female U.S. online subscribers were up 28 percent over 2006, and the company reports that growth of male subscribers specifically grew “significantly more” than that 28 percent, but declined to be more specific. In January 2007, two months before Weight Watchers launched the men’s section on weightwatchers.com, it drew 4 million unique visitors, according to Nielsen Online. By January 2008, it had 4.2 million unique visitors, a 5 percent increase. Weight Watchers, which had revenue of $1.5 billion in 2007, a 19 percent increase over the prior year, reports that about 10 percent of its members are men.

Rival NutriSystem has made even greater strides with men. In 2006, NutriSystem, which previously had featured only a few men in its customer testimonials, hired its first male celebrity spokesman, former NFL quarterback Dan Marino. Today ads featuring Marino, 46, who lost 22 pounds, other ex-NFL players like Jim Stuckey and Mike Golic, and comedian Larry the Cable Guy appear in male-skewing media where NutriSystem had never advertised before, including ESPN TV and radio, Sports Illustrated and Men’s Health.

NutriSystem reports that it is spending 29 percent of its television advertising budget on such male-oriented networks, but declined to disclose exact figures or its expenditures on print or radio.

Since hiring the spokesmen and adding men’s chat rooms to its Web site, the portion of NutriSystem’s customers who are men has jumped from 13 percent in 2006 to 30 percent today, fueling phenomenal growth: In 2007, revenue increased 37 percent to $777 million. Traffic at NutriSystem.com nearly doubled this January over last, from 1.4 million to 2.7 million unique visitors, according to Nielsen Online (which, like AdweekMedia, is a unit of the Nielsen Co.).

But as the diet industry increasingly sets its sites on men’s cheeseburger-and-beer-bloated midsections, the male dieter remains a fairly rare and unexamined species. When it comes to weight loss, medical studies have been dedicated almost exclusively to women, as have diet books and low-calorie packaged foods.

However, nutritionists, marketers and academics now are beginning to deconstruct how men eat, to glean what — if anything — is going through the male mind as he dunks a buffalo wing into that blue cheese dressing.

Bringing Men to the Table

According to the National Center for Health Statistics, 71 percent of adult men and 62 percent of adult women are overweight, defined as having a body mass index of more than 25. (That means weighing more than 184 pounds for someone 6 feet tall, or more than 155 pounds for someone 5 feet 6 inches tall.)

Although men are more likely to be overweight, they have been largely ignored by the weight-loss industry, which Marketdata, a market research firm, estimates at $55 billion, and predicts will grow to $68 billion by 2010. Since 2002, nearly every industry Marketdata tracks within that weight-loss category, including weight-loss centers, artificial sweeteners, diet sodas, diet books and exercise videos, has grown steadily.

“The bread-and-butter consumer for most companies is usually women about 35, who are married with children and have 30 to 60 pounds to lose,” says John LaRosa, president of Marketdata.

When it comes to dieting, men tend to be “do-it-your-selfers” and less drawn to support-group-based programs, LaRosa says. Men make up just 10 to 15 percent of the customer base at meetings-centric companies such as Weight Watchers and Jenny Craig.

Meanwhile, they account for as much as 30 percent of clients at companies like NutriSystem, which ships customers low-calorie meals. LaRosa says retail products like Slim-Fast or appetite suppressants also draw comparably high levels of men, since they also allow them to address their girth inconspicuously.

Slim-Fast, which makes shakes, protein bars, frozen entrees and snacks, was among the first diet companies to hire a celebrity spokesman, choosing former Los Angeles Dodgers’ manager Tommy Lasorda in 1988, followed by sportscaster Frank Gifford, ex-New York Mayor Ed Koch and singer Mel Torme. The Unilever brand reports that, on average, 35 percent of its customers are men.

“I think a certain amount of macho attitude goes into it,” LaRosa says. “Women are more likely to join structured programs with counseling, but men may think they’d be perceived as being weak and not able to do it themselves.”

So it comes as no surprise that instead of someone like Richard Simmons, NutriSystem tapped football stars.

“You see an athlete like Dan Marino and he’s a real man’s man,” says Delphine Carroll, a nutritionist with the company. “Having Dan Marino lose with NutriSystem kind of gave men permission to diet.”

Carroll says that, as with other diet programs, even when NutriSystem targeted only women, men would get roped in by wives or girlfriends. Noting that, NutriSystem decided to ring the dinner bell for men directly, and ran focus groups with them about food preferences. Now, Carroll says, some of the most popular food choices for men are those it developed with the male palate in mind, stick-to-your-ribs fare like beef tacos and pot roast.

Overweight men and women, it seems, were not created equally.

“Women get much more tripped up with snack grazing, but men get more tripped up at meal time,” says Brian Wansink, author of Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think and director of the Cornell University Food and Brand Lab. “It’s easier to justify overeating at meal time, and men will eat pizza, pasta, hamburgers or casseroles and think at least the food in general is more healthy if it’s meal related, even if they ate 3,600 calories.”

Some of Wansink’s research focuses on respondents who admitted to overindulging.
“We found again and again that whenever it comes to bouts of overeating, men are much less vexed with guilt,” Wansink says. “Women say, ‘I really messed up,’ but men are quickly able to put it behind them.”

And when it comes to talking about shedding weight, “I think it’s much more socially acceptable for women to talk about diets, to talk about calories,” Wansink says. “Even if they were equally concerned about it, it’s still a real stigma for guys to whine about weight.”

Dudes Don’t Diet

“Men have their own vocabulary for cutting calories, and it does not include the word ‘diet,'” says Karen Miller-Kovach, chief scientific officer at Weight Watchers International and the author of She Loses, He Loses: The Truth About Men, Women, and Weight Loss.

“Women love the word ‘diet,’ but you don’t hear men saying, ‘My diet starts Monday,'” says Miller-Kovach. “Men tend to say they need ‘to get in shape.'”

Men’s aversion to the word diet is not lost on the soft-drink industry. When introducing a new diet soda targeted at men, Coca-Cola called it Coke Zero, which some in Europe dubbed “bloke Coke.” Similarly, Pepsi One is also sugar-free, targeted to men and scrupulously avoids the d-word.

Less ostracized for being overweight, men tend to be slower to acknowledge it.
“Generally a man has to be obese before he considers himself even a little overweight,” Miller-Kovach says. “And men diet less often.

“Men are oblivious that their weight is even a problem, but when they realize it, it’s like the invasion of Normandy,” she continues. “Men are problem solvers and very dogmatic about weight loss.”

Men also tend to emphasize exercise, stressing not that they want to be “skinny” or “thin” but rather “fit” or “lean,” she says.

Miller-Kovach does see men’s attitudes about dieting beginning to shift, though. There is, of course, Jared Fogle, the spokesman hired by Subway after he lost more than 240 pounds on a strict diet of their sandwiches. But she says the bigger shift came with the popularity a few years ago of the Atkins diet. Men found eating the recommended steak, chicken and bacon agreed not just with their palates but their machismo — and dieted more openly then ever.

Although the Atkins diet drove the low-carb craze in 2003 and 2004, its popularity has dropped precipitously. But, according to Kim Evenson, svp of marketing and sales at eDiets.com, “we still see a really strong appeal for Atkins with men.”

Founded in 1996, eDiets.com helps clients choose from among more than 20 weight-loss plans, an approach the company calls “nondenominational dieting,” Evenson says. And the site recently added the  eDiets’ meal delivery plan, which resembles NutriSystem and Jenny Direct, a new option from Jenny Craig.

“A lot of times women are looking for more community support and engagement, whether online or offline,” Evenson says. “But men don’t say, ‘So Bob, how’s it going? How can I better support you?’ That’s not locker-room talk. Men like meal delivery, where there’s a simple approach that they’re able to follow.”

About 10 percent of eDiets’ customers are men, a number Evenson says has grown steadily from 1,000 men in 1998 to nearly 10,000 today. Although the company hasn’t designed ads for men per se, it does advertise in some male-skewing media, including Discovery’s Science Channel, whose audience is about two-thirds male.

Along with low-carb diets, the most popular category with men on eDiets is what the company calls “medical/special condition plans.” Such programs, prompted by a finger-wagging physician, are designed to lower cholesterol, improve the heart or manage diabetes.

Winners and Losers

Roger, Dan, Jay and Mark, a weight-loss group, are at their weekly weigh-in. Roger has dropped 8 lbs., while Dan and Jay have each lost 7 lbs., but Mark, the last to climb on the scale, has lost just 1 lb. The news comes as such a jolt that in the course of the next hour all four men are reduced to tears, at times sobbing while rocking and holding one another.

There is, naturally, more at stake than just a pound. The men are contestants on the fifth season of NBC’s The Biggest Loser. In this episode, the men’s team was forced to vote one member — sorry, Mark, (sniff) I love you, man — off of the show. The ultimate winner will take home $250,000.

Dave Broome, the show’s creator and executive producer, says when he first pitched it to networks, “I was told that a weight-loss show would never work, that it’s soft, a daytime subject. I said what I’m going to do is take a daytime subject, weight loss, and I’m going to prime-time it up.”

About 35 percent of The Biggest Loser‘s audience is men, according to NBC. The program bears little semblance to actual reality, but it certainly demystifies the notion of men dieting — and being stoic.

“Some of the biggest criers on the show have been males,” says Broome. “They’ve been as emotional — if not more emotional — than the female contestants.”

Thin Is In

Emoting and being smarter about nutrition are laudable, but men may be cultivating an unhealthy obsession with body image as well.

In 2007, Harvard researchers found that 25 percent of those with anorexia or bulimia were men, a dramatic increase over earlier estimates that men accounted for only 10 percent of those with eating disorders. Actor Dennis Quaid has termed his own weight loss for roles “manorexia,” and Billy Bob Thornton has also disclosed struggles with anorexia.

Some male models, meanwhile, are looking as emaciated as their female counterparts. In February, The New York Times reported that recent men’s fashion shows in Milan, Paris and New York featured models who were “chicken chested, hollow cheeked and undernourished.” One 6-foot-tall model told the Times he weighed a scrawny 145 pounds.

According to the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery, in 2007 the number of cosmetic procedures (both surgical and non-surgical) performed on men increased 17 percent over 2006 and totaled just over 1 million. Liposuction ranked among the top three surgical procedures for men.

“I don’t think there’s ever been a time when men have been more preoccupied with their bodies than today,” says Michael Kimmel, a sociologist and author of several books on men and masculinity, including Manhood in America: A Cultural History.

“I imagine we’ll see an increase of men with eating disorders over the next few years,” Kimmel says. “Men have not yet caught up to women in self-hatred of their bodies, but we’re on our way there.”

And to some, Kimmel surmises, that may be good news.

“This has been a fantasy of Madison Avenue for decades: How do you get straight white men to consume as many cosmetics and colognes as women do?” Kimmel says. “If they can get men to be as dissatisfied with their bodies as women are, they’ll be dancing in the streets.”

Until then, more men are dieting and hitting the gym.

Jon Grigio, 29, who lives in Austin, Texas, was up to 340 pounds a couple years ago.

“Of course I wanted to look better, but that wasn’t really what was on my mind at the time, because I think for men it’s socially acceptable to be overweight,” Grigio says. “But my sides would hurt when I leaned certain ways, and I couldn’t walk from the parking lot to a building without sweating.”

Grigio signed on with eDiets.com and, following a hybrid of the Atkins and Glycemic Index diets, lost 100 pounds in about a year, and has kept it off.

“I played football in high school and I’ve always been a steak and potatoes guy, so I just had to take away the potatoes and I still have the steak,” says Grigio, who sells insurance for Allstate. “When you’re eating out, you don’t have to say, ‘I can’t have that because I’m on a diet.’ Men are supposed to be tough and rugged and not need the help of a diet.”