No more dieting: How wellness became a trillion-dollar industry

Holistic health has taken over our social media feeds, while cutting out entire food groups is becoming a strict no-no

The day of the drastic diet has passed, say experts. Getty Images
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News that US weight-loss company Jenny Craig is closing its doors after 40 years didn't exactly come as a shock.

While the brand, which was started in Melbourne, Australia in 1983 by American Jenny Craig and her husband Sidney Craig, weathered the twists and turns of the fickle diet industry over the decades, the past few years have seen unprecedented changes in the way people approach their weight and health, not least the fact that no one wants to be seen dieting any more.

The idea of dieting has been ditched in favour of wellness – the catch-all yet cloudy term used to describe anything from full-body transformations to taking a little me-time for a facial.

It's a lesson Jenny Craig’s rival Weightwatchers learnt back in September 2018 when it dropped its previous message of weight loss, instead pivoting to an emphasis on health with the new motto: “Wellness that works”.

“Consumer demand can play a significant role in shaping the direction of the diet industry,” says Nesma Luqman, a clinical psychologist at Priory Wellbeing Centre in Abu Dhabi.

“Over time, individuals have become more conscious of their health and well-being and are seeking approaches to nutrition that go beyond simply cutting calories. This demand has fuelled interest in holistic health and personalised approaches, with a focus on overall lifestyle changes rather than short-term weight loss.”

In today’s rebranded diet world of intermittent fasting and cleanses, personal trainers and lifestyle swaps, food intolerances and allergies, not to mention the rise of diabetes medication Ozempic and the next wave of rapid weight-loss drugs, what does wellness mean nowadays and are the old ways of dieting gone forever?

A shift in language

Advertisements offering weight-loss or appetite-suppression products date back more than 100 years, but the language around dieting has changed dramatically.

“Personally, I dislike the use of the term 'diet industry’,” says Shiona Kelly, manager of fitness centre UN1T Dubai Hills. “There are negative connotations with the word ‘diet’, making clients feel they need to limit their food choices and not be able to enjoy themselves. There’s a lot of misleading information about what people should and shouldn’t eat and quick fixes to losing weight. None of this works in the long term.”

Lindsay also stresses how important wording is. “I think the word ‘diet’ is very negative for a lot of people and just means restriction,” says Lindsay. “I use the phrase ‘nutrition plan’ as it is far more positive for most people.”

The mainstreaming of the wellness movement can be traced back to 2008 when actress Gwyneth Paltrow launched her well-being and lifestyle company Goop.

Peppering her website with terms such as “gut health”, “metabolism support” and “wellness products”, the Oscar winner introduced weight-loss treatments and eating regimens that had previously only been known to or accessible by the super-rich and famous.

Body-positive advocates such as singer Lizzo and model Ashley Graham also helped change the language around diet and health.

In 2020, Lizzo revealed she had moved away from the term “body positivity” telling Vogue: “What I don’t like is how the people whom this term was created for are not benefiting from it. I would like to be body-normative. I want to normalise my body.”

What is wellness?

Wellness can be a vague concept and encompasses both physical and mental health. Social media is awash with motivational mottos, but the notion of “thriving not just surviving” has taken root for Gen Z.

“Over the past few years, I have noticed changes in the mindset of some patients, especially those who were chronic dieters, but tried many fad diets and failed,” says Doumani. “Now, more often I get some clients who are seeking wellness over rapid weight loss and calorie counting. This is music to my ears.”

Wellness, then, is a personal journey tailored to the individual that doesn’t necessarily have an end goal in the way traditional diets, with their goal weights and target body shapes, did.

For Kelly’s clients “performance-based goals rather than aesthetic” have taken precedence. Culinary developer Danah Al Zabin, who is a chef at Samadhi Wellness notes that “wellness in food development means creating nourishing and healthy meals that prioritise the use of whole, unprocessed ingredients".

Lindsay says: “Every client has a reason why they want to address their health and fitness. So I ask what wellness means to them. ”

Old concepts rebranded

While governments and public health services still offer health guidance in calories, those wishing to lose weight have long been using different terminology to communicate their health goals and desires.

The concept of calorie counting has been replaced by macros, a process of counting the grams of proteins, carbs or fat being consumed.

Elsewhere, dieting app Noom uses a colour-coded database – green, yellow and orange – to categorise foods based on their nutritional value. And it should come as no surprise that natural foods such as apples, spinach and egg whites are found in one colour category, while sugar, carb and fat-heavy foods such as French fries, burgers and cakes are in another.

It appears that calorie-counting and the concept of “good” and “bad” foods haven't gone away, but have simply been rebranded.

“All of these approaches have their place, and it depends very much on who is trying them out and what they’ want to achieve at the time,” says Lindsay.

“For example, athletes may need to be very specific about their calories and macros for their weight, performance and recovery, so calorie-counting would be appropriate and not considered outdated even though it may not be currently trending on social media.”

Fast results versus long-term goals

“In the past 10 years or so, I lost plenty of patients who wanted quick fixes and rapid weight loss,” says Lina Doumani, clinical dietitian at Camali Clinic in Dubai. “The idea of long-term lifestyle changes was boring and unachievable. Patients would demand to know the amount of calories in their meal plan or how kilos they could lose. But I never give a calorie count nor promise a certain amount of weight loss.”

It's hard to deny that the rise of the 24/7 lifestyle – in which anything can be delivered at the touch of a button – should spill over into the diet industry where demand for swift results is still high.

“Dieting can often push for rapid and restrictive approaches to weight loss that, for many, can fuel a cycle of yo-yo dieting, which can lead to feelings of failure, frustration and an overall unhealthy relationship with food,” says Luqman.

Doumani adds: “I get stuck sometimes when a person is into intermittent fasting or into cutting out an entire food group. With some psychoeducation and using evidence-based science, I try to change attitudes to have more equilibrium and normality in eating habits.”

The prevalence of social media and its influence over health trends, especially in the wellness influencer sphere, saw consultancy firm McKinsey estimate the global wellness market to be worth $1.5 trillion in 2021, while German data-gathering site Statista estimates it will grow to $7 trillion by 2025.

“I think that the style of delivery on social means that people want snappy little answers, tips and sound bites without context, which aren't suitable for everyone,” says Sarah Lindsay, a three-time Olympian and founder of Roar Fitness in Dubai. “My advice would be to try to educate yourself as much as possible and apply what feels relevant to your goals.”

Updated: May 30, 2023, 2:46 AM