THE SHAPE OF THINGS

The New Year is here, and with it, the customary resolutions to lose weight and eat healthier.With low-carb dieting no longer in vogue, what's next?Americans' growing tendency to customize their diets works against the popularity of a single diet. Instead of choosing one regime over another, people are cherry picking and tailoring food plans to make them work for their individual needs."Consumers

The New Year is here, and with it, the customary resolutions to lose weight and eat healthier.

With low-carb dieting no longer in vogue, what's next?

Americans' growing tendency to customize their diets works against the popularity of a single diet. Instead of choosing one regime over another, people are cherry picking and tailoring food plans to make them work for their individual needs.

"Consumers are looking for their own thing, which means that any trend can get hot," said Mona Doyle, president of the Consumer Network, a Philadelphia-based research firm.

Rather than pointing to one big dieting fad, retailers and industry observers see several smaller trends starting to take shape.

Among them are portion-control packaging; heart-healthy and low-glycemic foods; and products with little or no trans fats.

United Supermarkets in Lubbock, Texas, is focusing on the Mediterranean diet. Such foods will be the theme of its "Living Well" expo this month.

The one-day fairs, which operate monthly in six of United's 47 stores, include product sampling, cooking demonstrations and seminars on health issues. This month's event, scheduled for Jan. 7, will emphasize grains, fruits, vegetables, beans, yogurt and garlic, said Eddie Owens, marketing director.

"Researchers have discovered that people on Mediterranean diets have lower rates of heart disease and live longer," he said.

Since its stores serve big Hispanic markets, and diabetes is prevalent among Hispanics, United will also heighten attention on diabetic-friendly products.

Trans fats are also expected to gain attention from consumers. Trans fats are formed when vegetable oils are processed into margarine or shortening.

They're found in foods made with partially hydrogenated vegetable oil or vegetable shortening and in some animal products. Trans fats act like saturated fats and raise low-density lipoproteins - LDL, or "bad" cholesterol - but may lower high-density lipoproteins - HDL, or "good" cholesterol.

"Consumers are starting to become more aware of the term now that companies are putting 'trans fat-free' on their labels," said Carrie Taylor, registered dietitian for Big Y Foods in Springfield, Mass.

Manufacturers have been eager to reformulate products to make them trans fat-free since, as of Jan. 1, they're required to include their products' trans fat content on the Nutrition Facts panel. The Kellogg Co., for instance, will introduce some products reformulated with Monsanto's Vistive low-linolenic soybean oil early this year. Vistive is said to reduce or eliminate trans fatty acids while minimizing the saturated fat content.

Despite the publicity surrounding trans fats, Taylor said many people still aren't exactly sure what they are. That's why she included a section about trans fats in the January issue of "Living Well, Eating Smart," Big Y's new health and wellness newsletter.

Even while Americans are more concerned about trans fats, retailers are seeing more acceptance of so-called healthier fats like omega-3 fatty acids as part of a growing awareness of heart health. Omega-3s can reduce the risk of heart attack, stroke and other cardiovascular illness.

"People are becoming more accepting of fat in the diet, provided that it's the right kind of fat," said Lori Kelch, director of healthy living at Dorothy Lane Market in Dayton, Ohio.

Henry Rak, managing director at Henry Rak Consulting in Chicago, agreed that heart health could take on greater importance in 2006. While the topic is especially important to aging baby boomers, it affects plenty of other population groups.

"I've even seen public service announcements stating that the No. 1 cause of death for women is [cardiovascular disease], not cancer," he said.

Big Y's January issue of "Living Well, Eating Smart," along with covering trans fats, also promotes American Heart Month and stresses the fact that 34% of all Americans have cardiovascular disease. The newsletter emphasizes that the disease can hit anyone, regardless of age.

"Most people know someone who has heart disease," Taylor said. "It's becoming more prevalent."

Rak predicts that more food and beverage manufacturers will focus on the heart-healthy attributes of their products. The taste could determine whether such products survive, though.

"Consumers don't have much tolerance for trading off taste for health benefits," he said.

Consumer packaged goods makers are in the business of food, not medicine, and those that focus too much on medicinal benefits could risk alienating consumers who may think such products won't taste good, Rak said.

Along with watching what they eat, people are looking at how much they consume, fueling demand for portion-controlled foods like Kraft's 100-calorie snack packs.

"People don't want to deny themselves the foods they like," said Brian Wansink, director of the Food and Brand Lab at Cornell University, which studies the psychology behind what people eat and how often they eat it. He's also author of the book, "Marketing Nutrition: Soy, Functional Foods, Biotechnology, and Obesity."

Wansink doesn't think diet foods like fat-free chocolate will succeed. Instead, people will seek out foods that taste good and monitor how much they eat, he said.

Due to allergen and digestive issues, they're also going to be watching their wheat intake. Kelch of Dorothy Lane has noticed a sharp rise in demand for gluten-free products. The retailer also publishes a list of gluten-free foods.

"Four years ago, we starting reducing the amount of gluten-free we carry," Kelch said. "Now, we're bringing them back."

Sugar High

Used by diabetics to keep their blood sugar in check, low-glycemic foods are gaining interest among people wanting to control their weight for other reasons.

During the past year, consumer awareness of the glycemic index has ranged from 12% to 14% of the population, according to the NPD Group's Dieting Monitor survey.

Along with age, family history and ethnicity, an important risk factor for type 2 diabetes is obesity. To keep their weight in check, those with or at risk for diabetes pay close attention to the glycemic index, or GI, which provides an estimate of how rapidly food affects blood sugars.

Foods rated high on the glycemic index - potatoes and refined grains such as white bread and white rice - are digested and absorbed quickly by the body and cause a rapid rise in blood sugars. Foods low on the GI - whole grains, pasta, and citrus fruits - are digested and absorbed more slowly, which helps keep blood sugar and insulin levels in balance.

Even those who are not diabetic embrace low-glycemic foods because they help a person feel satisfied longer.

Some consumer packaged good manufacturers have begun to promote their products' low GI rankings on labels. Kashi Co., for instance, says its Golean Roll energy bars release carbs slowly to balance blood sugar, providing an "optimized glycemic response."