But the questionable flavor and texture took a back seat to the meal’s convenience — 2 minutes and 10 seconds in the microwave — and its “nutritional” value (i.e., low calorie count). With its 190 calories and two grams of fat, it was triumph in each bite.
In the decade and a half that followed, I, like any good dieter, became intimately familiar with a bleak landscape of diet foods.
There were the low-fat frozen meals and veggie “burgers.” There were the meal-replacement bars, meal-replacement shakes, meal-replacement cereals and countless 100-calorie snack packs (which, let’s be honest, taste best when eaten in multiples).
This list might sound extreme, but it’s no exaggeration. And it’s not unique to me.
Roughly 75 million Americans are on a diet, according to the independent market researcher Marketdata. Many turn to sources outside their own kitchens for help, and the weight-loss marketplace is booming for businesses promising that magic equation of health plus convenience. In 2010, meal-replacement products raked in about $2.65 million while diet food delivery grew into a $924 million industry.
But as the supply of weight-loss products grows, so does the problem that has created the demand for them. More than a third of American adults are considered obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and one-third are overweight.
For my part, I somehow managed to gain about 50 pounds while dieting, eating what I thought were the “right” foods in the “right” amounts. Each success on the scale was short-lived: I jumped between plans and pant sizes for about 15 years. In hindsight I realize my 13-year-old self was a perfectly healthy size. But in my personal quest to outsmart obesity, I had developed a weight problem.
I inadvertently broke this cycle in the fall of 2011. One of my friends said she wanted to try losing weight by “eating clean” — cutting all processed foods — and she needed a buddy for support.
At the time, I was fully entrenched in the membership-only Jenny Craig program, which featured a variety of frozen and shelf-stable meals, weekly meetings with a consultant and numerous celebrity endorsements. I had seen great success with the program. I was maintaining a healthy weight, and my cholesterol and blood pressure were “perfect,” according to my doctor. I was running half-marathons and fit into clothes I’d previously only dreamed of. Life was good, all thanks to about 1,200 calories a day and my trusty microwave.