Utah's retail market may be flat, its housing market depressed and its economy sluggish, but the diet business has never been better.

Utahns are watching what they spend on practically everything - except what it takes to watch their weight. While reluctant to buy houses, careful about taking trips and slow to purchase entertainment items, they've never been more eager to slap down good money to lose a few pounds.It seems operating a commercial diet program in this state is like having a license to print money. "We've had a 300 percent growth in Utah clientele in the last three years," said Lyndon Johnson, area director for Nutri/System. Profits have grown even faster. Nutri/System's annual gross income in Utah was five times higher in 1988 than it was in 1986, Johnson said.

"My business has doubled this year," said Sheree Larsen, a counselor for the downtown Diet Center. When she opened her office several years ago she had three clients. Today, "in my busy season I weigh 100 people a day."

Diet Center product sales in Utah soared 56 percent between 1985 and 1988, according to figures provided by the company's corporate office in Rexburg, Idaho. The number of Diet Center outlets in the state grew by 15 percent during that same period.

"It's a burgeoning business," said Tim Butler, director of the LDS Hospital School of Weight Management. "There's a lot of competition out there. The public is bombarded. It must be terribly confusing to the consumer."

"Nationally, dieting is a almost a $6 billion a year business," Johnson said. "It's a tremendous business. People think, `Gee, let's throw something on the market.' "

Marketing tactics get much of the credit for the success. The marriage between diet programs and the media may be a late one, but it's a happy one. Two years ago, Weight Watchers signed up Lynn Redgrave to promote their frozen food line on TV. Diet Center watched Redgrave's success, then quietly signed Susan St. James. St. James will be the focus of Diet Center's spring ad campaign, said Sheree Larsen, counselor at the downtown franchise.

Nutri/System stumbled across its marketing secret four years ago when a disc jockey for a Midwestern radio station approached Nutri/System about getting a discount on its diet if he, in turn, agreed to talk about his weight loss over the air. The DJ's success brought in so many inquiries that Nutri/System began signing up DJs across the nation.

Two years ago, the ploy came to Utah. And that's why you can't get a traffic report in this town without hearing more about the diminishing dimensions of the traffic reporter's body than even his wife wants to know.

LDS Hospital officials didn't market their Optifast program. They didn't have to. Oprah Winfrey did it for them. When Winfrey announced on her show that she had lost 67 pounds through the Opti-fast liquid protein diet, medically supervised Optifast programs across the country were flooded with inquiries.

The marketing for commercial diets has become sophisticated and calculating. For example, the dieting business has broken the calendar year down into three dieting seasons: the New Year's resolution season, the summer-is-coming season and the school-is-starting season.

The first appeals to everyone. The second mostly to women. And the third primarily to mothers. The marketing is targeted accordingly.

According to the diet calendar, we are approaching the beginning of the second diet season - the skimpy clothes and swimsuits season. The "Let's see what your body really looks like," season.

Most people don't truly panic about their summertime body until they see people wandering around looking sinuous and sensual in their swimsuits - a phenomena that doesn't strike until the snow melts (except on college campuses, where students have been lying in snowbanks to tan themselves for weeks now). Of course the only people who dare to run around in their swimsuits this early in the season have sinuous and sensual bodies to begin with. The rest are still hiding under their coats.

Diet Center

Diet Center is sold as a franchise. The style and hours of each center are influenced by the franchise owner, but the diets and Diet Center products are uniform. Diet Center has a different weight loss program for men and women. Both programs have five phases: a two-day conditioning program, for dramatic early weight loss; a reducing program; a stabilization program, which lasts one week for every two weeks spent on the reducing program; and a maintenance program. The fifth phase is a behavior modification program which continues throughout the weight loss and stabilization.

The Diet Center believes that obesity is a chronic illness that cannot be cured but can be controlled. It focuses heavily on blood sugar stabilization, offering a staggering regime of supplements the center claims will maintain the blood sugar, hence eliminating hunger.

"Diet Center teaches that controlling the blood sugar is the key to successful dieting," the Center's diet book says.

"The supplements are not placebos, appetite suppressants or drugs," Larsen said.

The downtown center is run by Larsen, who lost 97 pounds on the Diet Center diet. "The thing I liked best about Diet Center was the daily, private, one-on-one session with the counselor," she said. So she decided to run one herself.

Larsen prides herself on providing all the support her dieters need. For example, dieters who have had to attend local banquets have called Lar-sen for advice on what to eat. Larsen has called the place serving the banquet, found out what was being served, decided what the dieter could and couldn't eat and called the dieter back to make those suggestions.

"My whole thing is being accommodating. That one-on-one caring," she said.

Nutri/System

Nutri/System offers calorie-controlled meals that are prepackaged and easy to prepare. The program takes away the worry of measuring food, counting calories and balancing your nutrients by doing all of that for you. It is built on the premise that people won't stay on diets unless those diets are rich and varied in flavor.

The program's brochure describes a strong desire for flavor and texture as a "high flavor set-point" and claims it can satisfy that desire with foods designed to contain all the flavor and texture a dieter could want.

A daily reducing regimen consists of three packaged entrees, a packaged dessert, flavor packets plus limited fruits and vegetables. The stabilizing and maintenance diets gradually reintroduce regular foods but still encourage limited use of Nutri/System meals.

The program also offers a questionnaire designed to reveal the individual barriers that make it difficult for a person to lose weight.

Some of the packaged offerings are: lasagna, Szechuan chicken, Salisbury steak with mashed potatoes and mushroom gravy, beef enchiladas with Mexicali sauce, pancake mix, waffles with syrup, instant pudding mix, hot cocoa mix and iced tea.

The program offers nearly 100 food selections. The food does not need refrigerating and can be prepared in less than 10 minutes. It's up to the dieter to mix and match entrees for the day.

Optifast

LDS Hospital's Optifast program is designed for the seriously obese. It is a 12-week liquid diet accompanied by intensive medical supervision. To be accepted into the program, a person must be 50 pounds overweight, or over 130 percent of ideal weight.

Although Optifast is a commercial product, it can only be obtained through physicians and programs such as LDS Hospital's. The hospital's program is medically structured, supervised by a team of physicians, social workers and dietitians. Beginners must have a thorough physical exam, including a 20-channel blood analysis, an EKG and a urinalysis. The blood tests and urinalyses are repeated at routine intervals through the fast.

"If you are going to use a powerful, intensive approach, you have to be prepared to provide the medical care that makes it safe," Butler said.

During the fast, patients are only allowed to have four Optifast packets each day. The packets, available in four flavors, are dissolved in water.

After fasting for 12 weeks, a person will be gradually reintroduced to food over the next five weeks. The full program lasts for a year.

"We don't even seriously enter into discussions with people unless they say, `I'll give you a year.' " Butler stressed. The remainder of the year focuses on modifying eating habits in order to keep the weight off.

During the fast, clients see a doctor and behavior therapist once a week. After the fast, the doctor visits become less frequent but attendance at weekly classes is a continued requirement.

The program is also offered by Cottonwood, McKay-Dee, Logan Regional and Utah Valley hospitals.

Weight Watchers

Weight Watchers just celebrated its 25th anniversary and the program has the extensive offerings you would expect from the granddaddy of commercial diets. The program stresses its versatility and common-sense approach.

"We want people to live in the normal world. We don't teach them to diet; we teach them to eat properly," said Gwen Murri, leader training director for Weight Watchers in the Mountain West area.

Although Weight Watchers offers entrees and desserts in most grocery stores, the foods are not required. People can go through the whole program without buying any of the Weight Watchers products in the store.

The program is based on food exchanges. A dieter is given a certain number of fruit, vegetable, bread, milk and meat exchanges each day. The person picks the foods for each exchange from an exchange list.

In the early weeks, the exchange list is short. The program starts with a low-calorie, limited diet for drastic, early weight loss. It's called "the quick success program." Each week for the first five weeks, the food choices become more liberal and the calorie intake increases slightly.

At the end of the fifth week, if you still have weight to lose you stay on that diet until your excess weight is lost. The program teaches you how to handle desserts, restaurant dining, eating with the family and social drinking.

There is a vegetarian diet and diets for pregnant and nursing mothers They also offer a breakthrough diet, which is a week of rigid dieting for those who have hit a plateau.

"That's the name of the game: being able to serve every person no matter what walk of life they're from or what their eating habits are," Murri said.

The program includes stabilization and maintenance diets.