Follow me on

Manage Your Weight With a Boring Diet?



Loyal readers may recall a previous post on how the incredible diversity of food choices may be an important but underestimated contributor to the obesity epidemic. Particularly in children, variety has been shown to promote overeating, especially, when variety is provided in a setting that encourages ‘mindless’ eating.

In most cultures, traditional foods eaten every day, were often simple and repetitive (e.g. pretty much the same meat and potatoes, or the same old pasta dish everyday), which was exactly, why you went to the extents of preparing special meals with lots of different dishes on those special occasions (which were rare and far apart).

In contrast, our daily diets today are highly variable with seemingly unlimited choices (e.g. five different salad dressings to chose from or endless combinations even at fast food restaurants – just think of the wide range of offerings at a food court).

Previous studies have shown that most people, when confronted with choice, will eat more than ‘normal’ – even if simply out of curiosity (the Bootcampers will know exactly what I am talking about).

So does making your diet more ‘boring’ help reduce caloric intake?

This question was addressed by Leonard Epstein and colleagues from the Universities of Buffalo and Vermont in a paper just published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

The researchers randomised 16 obese and 16 non-obese women to a macaroni and cheese meal presented 5 times, either daily for 1 wk or once per week for 5 wk in a carefully controlled experimental setting.

In both obese and nonobese women, daily presentation of the marcaroni-cheese meal resulted in faster habituation, decreased ‘liking’ and eating about 100 fewer calories per meal than did once-weekly presentation of the macaroni-cheese meal.

Thus, making food ‘boring’ by presenting the same meal everyday will reduce ‘liking’ and caloric intake – but it is unclear how much ‘variability’ can be allowed to elicit this effect:

“Will someone show long-term habituation to consecutive meals of cheese pizza, pepperoni pizza, and mushroom pizza? Likewise, would people show long-term habituation if they consumed macaroni and cheese and risotto with the same cheese sauce, because of the representations of the cheese sauce? It is likely that the level of habituation is based on generalization of characteristics of food across meals, but research is needed to identify what similarities across foods are adequate to produce long-term habituation.”

As the authors point out, this experiment may point a way to rather simple dietary intervention strategies:

“Long-term habituation has many implications. Increasing food variety is a reliable way to increase energy intake within a meal, and increased variety in the diet is associated with greater body weight and poor choice of foods. Reducing variety may be an important component of interventions for obesity. Habituation may provide a mechanism for the effects of variety on energy intake, such that within-session habituation during a meal can lead to reduced intakes with reduced variety of foods. The long-term habituation reported here may be a mechanism for the effects of variety across (as opposed to within) meals. Thus, promoting long-term habituation by repeatedly serving the same food over days would lead to reduced energy intake over time. Such an intervention may be much simpler than the complex self-regulation approaches that are the basis for much of the current obesity therapy, which often meet with limited long-term success.”

I can think of a number of interesting experiments to see if this also works for highly palatable foods like snacks and desserts.

I wonder for just how long would one have to eat daily servings of chocolate or chips before someone gets tired enough of these foods to cut back?

I am certainly curious about whether any of my readers have used this strategy and found it helpful?

What are your favourite ‘most-boring’ foods?

AMS
Toronto, Ontario

Epstein LH, Carr KA, Cavanaugh MD, Paluch RA, & Bouton ME (2011). Long-term habituation to food in obese and nonobese women. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 94 (2), 371-6 PMID: 21593492

22 Comments

  1. Many traditional cuisines do have variety — I’m thinking of French, Italian, other cuisines that rely on foods in season and have a variety of locally-grown foods to choose from.

    I think when variety is used in service of selling more food/calories, that’s when it leads to problems.

    I know that there are people who have found weigh management success by limiting their food choices, and that makes sense, but for me, variety in the healthful foods, and trying to ignore the latest candy bars and chips on the market works well. Even if I eat more of a novel food (cherries in season, for example), it’s contributing to my overall nutritional status.

    Post a Reply
  2. This post makes me want macaroni and cheese.

    Post a Reply
  3. Comment from readers ‘Nicole’:
    I just wanted to write to you about today’s post. Please feel free to post on your blog.
    I have found I maintain my weight better when I eat the same breakfast, lunch and snacks everyday. I vary the flavor of my yogurt with breakfast and the protein in my lunch but everything else is the same. I allow for a different evening meal as this I share with others and they like variety. I find I stick to my meal plan better on weekdays when I am in my work routine verses the weekend when things are less structured.
    As for snacks like chips, chocolate or ice cream…..once is always too much and never enough so I avoid my trigger binge foods like the plague. I could never become tired of them. I tried to eat them to the point of excess to see if that would make me not want them but didn’t work. Can’t adopt the ‘small portion is okay’ mentality.
    Thanks for a great post.

    Post a Reply
  4. I think the National Weight Control Registry found that many of their successful participants (who lose weight & maintain the new weight) limit variety in their diet and have a food routine.

    Post a Reply
  5. This is the point Michael Pollan made in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, that although the individual dishes we now eat may be healthy, they’ve been unmoored from their context and we don’t really know how to handle them. So sushi, within the context of the traditional Japanese diet, may be healthy, it becomes a different thing when we have an English breakfast, a sushi lunch and then an Italian pasta dinner. It’s very difficult to get a sense of what’s an appropriate amount of food.

    On the topic of eating nothing but pizza etc for a while – this would have to be a study in itself, because these types of junk foods have been engineered to increase your desire for them. It would be interesting to see the difference that eating a normal boring diet versus eating a boring junk food diet. I’d lay money on it that the boring junk food diet would lead to a less marked increase in calories.

    Post a Reply
  6. I will eat the same thing for a few days, usually until it’s used up. I’m an eater more like AcceptanceWoman, I like variety. I buy whatever is in season, and figure out new ways to cook with it. My farmers market is awesome, and leads to huge diversity in my diet. As for the non-produce, that tends to be similar from day to day. Different beans, sometimes egg, sometimes cheese, sometimes grains, noodles, fish, meat, bread. I also try to avoid the chips and heavily processed carbs, as I’ll overeat them. I will not overeat whole grain pasta or bread, so that’s what I try to stick with.

    Post a Reply
  7. This is interesting. I do tend to eat and cook the same things, even though I know how to cook holiday food as well — things like gnocchi and lasagne or rolls and pies. I make the world’s best Christmas cookies, but I always aim the overage at co-workers or music teachers. That’s what co-workers are for — targets for excess baked goods. 🙂

    Day to day, I will invariably reach for garlic, an onion, a bell pepper, some mushrooms, some chicken, and make a stir fry with olive oil and some rice or couscous on the side. Almost always. The variety comes from the spices and herbs you flavor it with. One day it’s a little bit of peanut sauce, the next a bell pepper tapenade, the next some Chinese five spice, then garam masala, then some curry powder …

    Spices — and foods that will take them up well — are your friend. 🙂 A different teaspoon of these things each night will give your palate all the variety it needs.

    Post a Reply
  8. This is an important concept that requires more empirical research like that presented here. There is the healthy concept of “variety” that nutritionists have always promoted – eat a diversity of foods to get all your required nutrients; then the “variety” promoted by food manufacturers (to increase sales). The incredible increase in “variety” we have seen at the grocery store over the last generation has included healthy fare (more whole grain products; exotic fruits and vegetables) but the vast majority has been in the form of processed, low-nutrient convenience foods. A study I published in 2009 analyzed the increase in food disappearance in Canada over several decades. The top four food commodities that accounted for most of the increase in calories in the Canadian food supply between the mid-1970’s and mid-2000’s were: 1-flour (95% sold in Canada is white), 2-shortening, 3-oils (all ingredients in highly processed foods) and 4-soft drinks. These ingredients are all hallmarks of the nutrition transition.

    Post a Reply
  9. I find this very hard to believe, actually. Perhaps in some people, eating too much of the same food leads to boredom and thus they eat less of it–but I don’t believe it is that way for everyone. Children, for example–it is extremely frustrating how they will go through phases of eating only the same foods over and over again. What’s going on there? And usually the kids continue to grow. I’m sure there are lots of adults in the same rut–and not losing weight, either.

    Post a Reply
  10. I have been working on my weight loss (475 to 417 in 5 months), and having the same breakfast and lunch has been a godsend. Like in cathloic school wearing a uniform, I don’t need to worry about what to eat, it’s almost always the same (the contents of my pepper salad may change, but it’s usually peppers, tomatoes, onions)… this consistancy is really important for me.

    Post a Reply
  11. There is a lot of discussion of this topic at http://wholehealthsource.blogspot.com/2011/05/food-reward-dominant-factor-in-obesity.html. Particularly interesting is the very old, very small study of a completely bland liquid diet. Lean volunteers maintained their calorie intake, while obese volunteers nearly stopped eating while not being hungry. One man lost 200 pounds. Studies there are more from the neurobiology viewpoint rather than nutrition. A clinical study where participants eat a tasty calorie restricted diet while “filling up” only on very bland foods looks promising.
    Personally, I would slowly get tired of macaroni & cheese, but never on pizza.

    Post a Reply
  12. In regards to todays posting of variety causes weight gain–I have found that when a casserole or other meal is fresh I will overeat. However, when I have left overs while they are yummy I am not as tempted to increase the portion size. I make all of my larger meat based meals fairly flavorful so that I do enjoy and use the left overs. This can be a shepherds pies where I put garlic and bay leaf in the potatoes and carrots while they are cooking, or bay leaf in pasta water while it is cooking, or baking spices in hamburger paties before cooking. The yummy fresh flavors are enough that on the days I make freshh make-ahead meals my calorie intake is always high than it should be–but I am still managing to loose one pound per week. I would like to get over this hazard of weight lose because there will come a time when I stop loosing and still need to loose more, but the insight is invaluable. Thank you very much

    Post a Reply
  13. “I wonder for just how long would one have to eat daily servings of chocolate or chips before someone gets tired enough of these foods to cut back?”
    I can eat chocolate everyday for years and I do not get tired of it (unfortuntely) that’s why I try to limit it to 3x/week.
    I do cook a great variety of foods with different techniques … I LOVE cooking and creating new recipes and then try them out and I am loosing weight for the last 3 years and counting. I go with seasonal products mainly and use different spices & herbs meaning it does not taste the same = variety. I do believe you can maintain a healthy weight if you use a variety of foods as I look at it this way: if you get your senses/taste buds stimulated at a regular meal you go less for the in-between snacking of unhealthy foods as you are satisfied with your meal. If you start eating less of a boring meal at some point you start skipping it and go for your salty/sweet craving and cannot stop or control it.

    Post a Reply
  14. The average grocery store contains 48,000 items and in the last 12 years the size of the grocery store has increased in size by at least 40 %. This does not even speak to the big box stores like Cosco who are even larger. It also doesn’t speak to the visual temptation we see all around us reminding us that food is just a few steps away. Association isn’t correlation but when you consider that grandma probably had 100-200 foods to choose from in her entire lifetime including all the dishes of her recipe box and we have at least 240 times that many it makes sense why we are so tempted by food. Our biology is set up afterall to ensure we don’t whither away and to ensure survival in what was once a calorie poor environment except during certain times of the year. Even if we just “try” each one of these products we are still likely to be eating more than we might otherwise have done if our environment were more boring.

    Post a Reply
  15. Why stop at a boring diet? You can also control your sinful lust through boring sex. Never try new positions or have sex in interesting places and for god’s sake, stay away from sex toys! An embarrassing and unfashionable passion for your work can be controlled through a boring, unchallenging job. Never travel or discuss new ideas. That will make your family life less serene and predictable and your thoughts less conventional, and you might become a social pariah or even become dissatisfied with your station in life.

    Wait. Why was it that we think it’s best to live for a long as possible? Without novelty, variety and pleasure in life (and food is an important part of life), what’s the point?

    Post a Reply
  16. Dee, your analogy to sex is more spot-on than you might wish. Exposure to highly varied and highly processed porn DOES get in the way of people’s attempts to form meaningful, healthy, real relationships with others.

    The fact is that we are not entitled to consume everything on Earth. That’s a childish and spoiled attitude. There are thousands of things to learn, achieve, accomplish, and do for the world. Compared to that frankly, thousands of things to EAT is pretty petty. I highly doubt that the parallel between eating one of every kind of Dorito and learning to play a few musical instruments is really as robust as you think.

    People in this culture need to learn the concept of “enough” and that they don’t have to consume everything they can lay eyes on, just in general. There is such a thing as wretched excess, especially when it comes to pointless consumption. I’ve known friends with quite healthy salaries who are nonetheless drowning in debt because they can’t keep from buying endless amounts of useless tchotchkes because, “I’m celebrating!” or “I deserve it!” or “Life is short!”

    And when it comes to maintaining a healthy weight, life gets a lot shorter when your doctor has to tell you that your pancreas is on its last legs.

    Moderation is not a dirty word.

    Post a Reply
  17. Most people who are not dieting and who primarily prepare their own foods will find that they do not vary much at all in their diets. Families tend to eat the same 10 dinner meals year-round. Variety seems to go against our natures. I might have a different breakfast or different lunch, but it is rare. It’s also very easy to modify one’s eating when one already knows exactly what s/he eats pretty much every day. It’s easier to change a portion than it is to make a whole new meal from scratch. Dieting also has all those “diet foods” that just add to the stigma. If they’re not a part of your daily life,they’re not going to become a part of your daily life simply because they’re on the diet menu. If you do need to make big changes in order to be eating healthfully, you have to take place slowly. Change fries to roasted potatoes and the like. While in my family we eat a variety of healthful foods — they tend to be the same healthful foods day after day changing only with the seasons and changing availability.

    Post a Reply
  18. Janis, I’ve got to say, I don’t really eat Doritos, or any other type of processed food, regularly, although I certainly wouldn’t condemn people who choose to. It’s their prerogative. However, someone mentioned “an English breakfast, a sushi lunch and then an Italian pasta dinner,” and I would consider that a pleasant day’s eating. Moreover, I could prepare all of it myself. (Okay. Swap the English breakfast for oatmeal. I find fry ups too greasy for my taste and would probably not be hungry for lunch after eating one for breakfast.)

    I am not promoting wanton excess or a poor quality diet, nor do I think moderation is a “dirty word.” I was talking about variety and enjoyment. Personally, I don’t associate sushi consumption with porn consumption. Maybe that’s just me.

    Post a Reply
  19. I eat on meal/day of an omelette of 1 whole egg and 3-5 egg whites, onions, peppers, mushrooms, and unsallted nuts. Dessert is a green apple or berries.
    I’ve lost ten pounds in about three and a half weeks. No salt or sugar It works very well for me.

    Post a Reply
  20. That’s how I started out and I never even heard of this till today, but I started out like that when I first decided to lose weight. I picked a few good dishes that I knew were low carb and low calorie and easy to make and just stuck to those few. That way I knew how many calories and carbs I was getting verses trying new and different things and maybe counting wrong. Once I began to lose weight eating certain things I stuck to those things that I KNEW would make me lose weight. Now that I’ve lost 100 pounds and know more about low carb I don’t do that, but that is a good concept for a beginner trying to train themselves to eat less and more healthy.

    Post a Reply
  21. When I first heard about the “Boring Diet” I had already shed 30 pounds on my self imposed diet of almost the same foods everyday. My choices: breakfast is 2 cups of coffee with half and half and a sliced apple with peanut butter. About 4pm I have 4 oz of plain hummus with 4 stalks of celery for dipping. Dinner: Chicken breast or salmon, pan browned with a drizzle of olive oil. a whole sliced avocado, a sliced Roma tomato and a green salad with mozzarella sprinkles and olive oil or sugar free raspberry vinegarette dressing. Variations from salad: grilled asparagus, buttered (yes, butter) green beans or buttered broccoli. 9pm snack: 2% Greek Yogurt with a tsp of cinnamon, a whole sliced banana and crushed almonds on top. Everyday an apple, avocado, tomato, banana and almonds – no matter what. I’ve gone from 165 to 138 pounds in a year. From a size 16 to a 10. I am pushing 70 and I have never looked prettier!! For the first time in 25 years, I am happy to be me. A Boring Diet works …… especially if you pick the whole foods you love. I never buy “light” or “fat free” products. Now I can even enjoy a restaurant meal once a week, whole wheat pasta once a week and wine or cocktails a few times a week. But I got to my goal before I allowed anything fun …….

    Post a Reply
  22. I’m pretty sure this research has been done, and high energy foods never lose their palatability. With something like chips or ice cream, we seem to need more of it over time (habituation to the drug?) instead of wanting less. Variety is useful to keep us engaged with fruits, vegetables, even exercise. Peter Kaminsky, food critic, wrote a diet tome around getting a high flavor-per-calorie, which I also used when I dieted. Dieting is deprivation, the body doesn’t like it, but I can offset some of the problems by having a high sensory engagement. I also think that it’s easier to diet when I make a point of cooking my meals because touching and smelling food adds to the satisfaction of a meal enough to offset the lack of calories.

    Post a Reply

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published.