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?

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