Monday, July 25, 2011

Fad Diet Alert: Is The Meal Monotony Diet Next?

I've read several research studies in the past few years which suggest overweight and obesity are due not only to food availability, but to the sheer variety of food from which to choose. Here's a link to a recent article on this topic, this time from The Independent online. It's based on a study published in American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (you can read the abstract here).

The theory goes like this: When you eat the same food over and over again, you become habituated to it. That is, it becomes boring, so you eat less. Since you're now eating less, you'll lose weight.

From an epidemiological standpoint, this makes sense. If you lived in Northern China five hundred years ago, your diet would have consisted of a comparatively limited number of food items. For that matter, a research study I read back when I was in college observed that women who cooked at least four days a week rotated between about eight recipes. It wouldn't be too hard to get bored eating the same eight meals two or three times a month.

That said, I'm not convinced. For starters, this theory fails to explain why I can mow through a bag of pita chips, or a container of cashews--no problem! The flavor never changes; how come I never get bored?

In fact, I was just telling my kids that when I was in high school, I worked at a deli for about six months. We served sandwiches, salads, sides, cookies...and gelato. Mmm, that gelato! My mom, who worked in an ice cream parlor after high school, assured me that eventually I'd tire of it. I didn't. After trying everything else on the menu, I focused exclusively on the rum-raisin gelato, and ate only rum-raisin gelato. To this day, I'm still looking for a rum-raisin gelato that measures up to my memories. (Given that I gained a few pounds eating rum-raisin gelato nearly every day, perhaps that's for the best!)

Maybe I'm the exception to the rule, but I suspect there's far more to weight management than variety versus boredom, at least in practice. After all, if boring diets really worked, the grapefruit diet and the cabbage soup diet would have done the trick decades ago. I'm willing to predict that the Monotony Diet will end in dieters faithfully eating one or two or three foods for a few weeks...and then bingeing at their favorite buffet.

In fact, I'm willing to go out on a limb and suggest that caloric intake is far more dependent on other factors than habituation versus variety. What do you think? Do you believe food choice is influenced by variety, but other factors play a greater role? Or are you on board for the Monotony Diet?

Monday, July 18, 2011

Is Grazing Good For You? Maybe Not!

Clients and students often ask for my opinion on frequent snacking or "grazing," the practice of eating five or six small mini-meals a day. This is one of those issues for which I don't need to look far for an answer: While grazing works for some people, it's disastrous for others.

I know this, because I happen to be one of those "others." My husband plans ahead for three meals and at least one snack. My kids eat three meals and two snacks on most days. I've learned that for me, it's best to stick to three meals.

I've also observed that when I'm hungry between meals, it's almost always because my meals are low in protein and high in carbohydrate. Sometimes, it's because I neglected to incorporate enough non-starchy veggies. Either way, snacks seem to find their way into my eating habits when I'm not paying enough attention to balancing my meals. And when I do snack, it's almost never a good thing: I have a tendency to lean toward high-carb or high-calorie snacks, like a handful of pretzels or nuts.

My perspective hasn't been too popular lately. However, that may change soon. recently posted an article about a study conducted by researchers at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The researchers concluded that since 1977, both calorie density and eating frequency have increased. That is, the foods Americans eat began to contain more calories, and Americans began to eat more frequent meals and snacks.

However, they also observed that in the early- to mid-2000s, calorie density began to level off, while eating frequency increased. This led to their conclusion that eating and drinking more often throughout the day may be a contributor to the obesity crisis we're experiencing in the US.

It's a reasonable observation. True, there are many factors that affect weight management. However, activity level and eating habits are probably the two most critical factors. Unless you're very carefully monitoring what you're eating at your meals and snacks, it's all-too-easy for those meals and snacks to undermine your weight management efforts.

So, if you're like me, and grazing isn't for you, consider yourself vindicated, and focus on eating healthfully three times a day. If you'd like to check out the article, you can do so here; there's a link to the full study there, as well.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Do Children Learn What They Live, Or What They're Taught?

Do your kids sit glassy-eyed in front of the television for hours? You're not alone. Dr. Catherine Birken lead a group which reviewed thirteen different studies, all of which concluded what many parents already know: It's hard to get kids to turn off the TV and work in a little physical activity. You can read an article about the study here.

Interestingly, the article doesn't mention the one intervention I'd assume would have the greatest effect: working with parents to model turning off the TV and being more active. There's a saying that "Children learn what they live."

I grew up in rural Alaska, and for many years, we didn't have running water or electricity. Naturally, we didn't have a television. After I left home, I didn't have a TV for years. I've never had a TV in my bedroom, and we have only one television in our home. My husband and I both set limits on the number of shows we watch, and the amount of time we spend watching TV.

Likewise, my kids know they can only watch a certain amount of TV daily, and only certain shows. They often opt to read a book, work on a project (right now, they're into finger crocheting), or play a game instead of watching TV. If my husband and I weren't setting the example that we do--if we watched endless TV, ate meals with the TV on, went to sleep with the TV on in the bedroom--I doubt that any intervention, no matter how well-planned or executed, would consistently overcome parental influence in the long run.

What do you think? Should we focus our intervention efforts on children? Should studies be family-oriented, and aid both parents and children in making healthier choices? Or should researchers turn their attention to parents? Let's hear from you!