BOSTON, MA (November 27, 2018) – U.S. consumers are a study in contrasts when it comes to their food and beverage consumption. As changing preferences are driving demand for fresher and healthier eating options, Americans are consuming significantly more grains, fats and calories than they used to. That’s according to new research from L.E.K. Consulting.

“Soaring rates of chronic diseases have drawn attention to the role of diet in health and well-being. While consumers say this awareness is focusing them more on healthy eating, they clearly still indulge at a fast clip,” says Manny Picciola, Managing Director at L.E.K. Consulting and coauthor of Consumer Health Claims 3.0: Talk Thin, Eat Fat: The Paradox of Indulgent Food Trends, based on a survey of 1,600 consumers in the U.S. “In a high-stress and time-starved environment, people often default to indulgent treats in their efforts to decompress.”

According to the survey, a full 93% of consumers say they feel compelled to eat healthy at least some of the time – and 63% say they try to eat healthy most, if not all, of the time. But, most consumers also admit to indulging at least occasionally; around 85% say they give in to more than half of their cravings.

“Basically, today’s consumers ‘talk thin’ more than ever before, but they also continue to ‘eat fat’ by indulging in the foods they love,” says Maria Steingoltz, Managing Director at L.E.K. and report coauthor.

Among consumers who say they try to eat healthy, the two most common foods for indulgence are fast food and pizza. Nearly half – 46% – of consumers say they indulge in each of these food categories. In fact, U.S. fast food sales in 2017 grew faster than the overall economy and, this year, the worldwide pizza market reached $134 billion, with more than 75,000 pizzerias in the US alone.

“While savory is in, sweets are definitely holding their own,” says Rob Wilson, report coauthor and Managing Director at L.E.K. Wilson points out that while the overall annual growth rate in the U.S. food industry is about 2.9%, sales of premium chocolate saw a 10% uptick in just one year. Meanwhile, cupcake sales rose 13% over a five-year period and sales of mini-pies grew a whopping 22% between 2012 and 2013.

Indulgent foods are up – but not across the board. In fact, L.E.K. found that they’re mostly moving within the context of other trends, such as:

  • Retro: Nostalgic foods are making a comeback. Krispy Kreme donuts has weathered a numbered of storms over its 81-year history and now claims a value of $1.3 billion. And Hostess went from liquidation to a $2.3 billion acquisition in just four years. Interestingly, not every trend returns in exactly the same way – a corn dog might have sweet-potato batter or lamb merguez sausage, and restaurants such as Shake Shack emphasize the freshness, sustainability and purity of its classic hamburger fare.
  • Fusion: Once the province of high-end restaurants, fusion cuisine has found its way into street food. As the U.S. population becomes more diverse and exposure to other cultures and foods increases, fusion can introduce novelty without straying too far from comfort food familiarity. Fusion can be as simple as substituting sriracha for ketchup or adding curry seasoning to potato salad – or as involved as a sushi burrito or a sandwich between slices of doughnut instead of bread.
  • Portion control: In the past, food and beverage purveyors might have reformulated products to contain less sugar or fat. Now, they are much more likely to keep the flavor but offer smaller sizes. For example, Coke, Pepsi and Dr. Pepper Snapple Group offer 7.5-ounce cans, and Applebee’s encourages diners to make a meal of their side dishes.
  • Healthy twists: On the flip side of portion control is more healthful food that mimics the flavor and texture of everyday favorites. These options allow people to enjoy food without the concern they might have about products with more sugars, salt and saturated fats. High-protein ice cream, like Halo Top, now accounts for 10% of all new ice cream launches – and the category didn’t even exist 10 years ago.

So, why this paradox between talking thin and eating fat? L.E.K. says to keep in mind that eating isn’t always about hunger – it can be a psychological response as well. According to some studies, the sugars and fats in comfort foods effectively moderate feelings of stress. Further, a Gallup survey found that Americans now work an average of 47 hours each week, and with affordable comfort foods so readily available, it’s no wonder that indulgent treats are on the rise.

About L.E.K. Consulting
L.E.K. Consulting is a global management consulting firm that uses deep industry expertise and rigorous analysis to help business leaders achieve practical results with real impact. We are uncompromising in our approach to helping clients consistently make better decisions, deliver improved business performance, and create greater shareholder returns. The firm advises and supports global companies that are leaders in their industries — including the largest private and public-sector organizations, private equity firms and emerging entrepreneurial businesses. Founded in 1983, L.E.K. employs more than 1,400 professionals across the Americas, Asia-Pacific and Europe. For more information, go to