Can the Atkins diet raise GNP?

Commentary about business and finance.
Sept. 15 2003 10:49 AM

The Bull About the Beef

Has the Atkins diet really transformed the American economy?

(Continued from Page 1)

The Research Institute on Livestock Pricing reports that the average American per-capita consumption of beef has increased 1.8 pounds per year since 1997—another 525 million pounds per year. If the 6 million Atkins dieters are consuming all that additional beef, then they are eating 87.5 pounds more meat per year than they previously did, which would mean they're now eating steak and burgers at every meal except breakfast. And that's just beef. Pork, chicken, eggs—if all the increases in Atkins-friendly foods are due to Atkins dieters, it's a wonder anyone has lost weight: They would have to be eating almost nonstop. (And those who note the surge in Atkins-friendly food tend to ignore an equally vigorous countertrend: Sales of Krispy Kreme donuts grew an amazing 25 percent last year, to $492 million, with cookies, potato chips, and other Atkins-verboten products following suit.)

So, why the increase in demand for beef, pork, and chicken? Atkins probably plays a small part, but it may have much more to do with everyday economics than any fad diet. Convenience, more than anything else, is what drives consumer trends, say experts. "Time is of the essence," said Balzer. "The trend in the last 15 years has been towards more convenient options. Cereal bars, toaster pastries, frozen breakfast sandwiches—that's where the growth has been."

"Today's family has two working parents," said Wayne Purcell, professor of agricultural and applied economics at Virginia Tech. * "They want something easy to prepare, and the meat industry is finally providing that."

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Meat is suddenly convenient. Beef Magazine reported that last year more than 500 new "beef convenience" products were launched, and sales of frozen and heat-and-serve beef have hit $1.5 billion, up from virtually nothing a decade ago. For the first time beef is transitioning from a commodity to a branded product, with quality improving as a result. "Ten years ago people just bought steak, and it might be pretty tough," said Purcell. "Now they buy Omaha Steaks filet mignon, ready to heat up in minutes. Companies are putting out much better meat in order to compete."

But if the Atkins diet is supposed to help America lose weight, the push for convenience has the opposite effect. Economists at the National Bureau of Economic Research and University of Chicago persuasively argue that one of the biggest reasons for the nation's current obesity epidemic is that food is now so much cheaper and easier to prepare. "Forty percent of the recent growth in weight seems to be due to agricultural innovation that has lowered food prices," write Darius Lakdawalla of the RAND Corp. and Tomas Philipson of the University of Chicago.

It's simple supply and demand: When supply becomes more prevalent, demand is easier to satisfy. We're not eating more steak because of the Atkins diet, they say. We're eating more, simply because we can.

Correction, Sept. 15, 2003: The piece originally referred to Virginia Tech University. In fact, the school is officially named "Virginia Polytechnic Instituteand State University," and known casually as Virginia Tech. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

Charles Duhigg is a reporter for the New York Times, based in New York, and the author of the book The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business.

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