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One in six Americans is on a special diet, mainly to lose weight, CDC survey finds

A woman tosses a salad
A woman prepares a salad. About one in six Americans say they follow some kind of special diet, and the primary reason they cited was to lose weight.
(Los Angeles Times)

If it seems like more and more people are on diets these days, you might not be imagining it.

About one-sixth of American adults said they’re on a special diet to lose weight or for other health reasons, according to a report published Tuesday by researchers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That’s more dieters than there were a decade ago, a government survey found.

The report found that 17% of Americans said they were on diets during the 2017-18 survey period, up from 14% a decade earlier. Over the same period, the obesity rate for adults in the U.S. rose from 34% to 42%.

The percentage of Americans who said they’re on a diet is lower than expected, given the prevalence of diet-related diseases in the country, said Dana Hunnes, a professor of public health and nutrition at UCLA.

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By 2030, nearly half of U.S. adults will be obese, including the nearly 1 in 4 who will have severe obesity. The obesity rate will surpass 50% in 29 states.

The report noted that about half of American adults have diet-related chronic conditions, such as diabetes and heart disease, and that special diets are a way many people try to manage them. Hunnes cautioned, though, that many people might not consider the way they eat to be a diet.

The researchers, from the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics, also looked at survey responses between 2015 and 2018 to determine other characteristics of people on special diets. Among their findings:

• More women (19%) reported being on a diet than men (15%).

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• The heavier people were, the more likely they were to report being on a special diet. The report found 23% of Americans who were obese said they were on diets, compared with 17% of people who were overweight and 8% of people who were normal weight or underweight.

• The odds of being on a special diet also increased along with people’s years of education. Researchers reported that 14% of those who didn’t finish high school said they were on a diet, as were 17% of those who finished high school and 19% of those who graduated from college.

• 18% of non-Latino white Americans, 16% of Latino Americans and 15% of Asian and Black Americans said they were on diets.

• A higher percentage of people 40 and older said they were on diets (19%) than those ages 20 to 39 (13%).

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• Compared with the 2007-08 survey, diets described as “weight loss or low calorie” grew in popularity, and remained the top category of special diet. Low-carbohydrate diets gained in popularity, while low-fat and low-cholesterol saw a decline.

The findings were based on the CDC’s ongoing National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, in which participants were asked: “Are you currently on any kind of diet, either to lose weight or for some other health-related reason?”

U.S. adults made modest improvements in their diets in recent years but still eat too many low-quality carbohydrates and too much saturated fat.

Becky Ramsing, a registered dietitian and senior program officer at Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, said that the dietary changes people make in hopes of losing weight can vary greatly. And in some cases, she said people might not understand why the choices they’re making aren’t leading to weight loss.

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“They won’t eat bread, but then they’ll go eat a lot of other things that are higher in calories,” she said.

Many diet trends often focus on banning particular foods, Ramsing said. But to make lasting changes, she said people should consider their overall patterns of eating. That will also help address another pitfall of diets, she said: They’re hard to stick to over time.


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