- The Washington Times - Monday, November 14, 2005

Overweight? Diabetic? Cholesterol out of control? Have we got a deal on a meal for you.

If that sales pitch sounds a little sick, that’s the point. Aging baby boomers and rising rates of obesity, diabetes and other health conditions have marketers looking to people with chronic illnesses as the new must-reach demographics.

It’s part of a cultural shift that increasingly sees health problems as lifestyle issues rather than diseases. Now, the food industry is realizing those lifestyles can have a major influence on spending habits.

It’s easy to see why this is a fast-growing trend. For people like Karen Merrill, lifestyles have become matters of life and death.

The 49-year-old Barrington, N.H., woman had a heart attack and quintuple bypass in 2002. She says the chronic-disease pitch — which gives good-for-you branding to everything from menu items to entire supermarket shelves — makes it easier for her to eat and shop.

During a recent trip to her grocery store, she was thrilled to spot several new whole-grain breakfast cereals — foods she’s supposed to be eating more of — displayed in a “heart healthy” section of the cereal aisle.

“I never would have known that this cereal existed if it wasn’t for that display,” Mrs. Merrill said. “By coupling things like that, it introduces me to new things. Normally, I would have been heading to the health food store to get it.”

And there are plenty of incentives for these efforts.

Americans with heart problems — there are more than 70 million of them — represent $71 billion in annual buying power. The nation’s nearly 21 million diabetics command about $14 billion. And don’t forget that about two-thirds of American adults are overweight or obese.

People with chronic health conditions also are two to three times more likely than their healthy peers to follow special diets, making them prime targets for low-fat, low-sugar and other specialty foods, according to a report by IRI Healthcare Solutions Group, a Chicago-based marketing research firm.

There also is a spillover effect. “If Mom comes down with something, the entire household’s diet changes,” says Bob Doyle, a senior vice president at IRI.

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