A woman we know likes to say, 'There are three
kinds of cheese: yellow fat, orange fat, and fat with
Mmmm! Choices, choices.
When it comes to options for sweets and high-fat
treats, it seems that the best choice might just be
the same one you made yesterday, and the day
before, and maybe last week, too.
Research shows that people who have a wide variety
of sweets and high-fat treats like cookies and chips,
or even cheeses in their diets tend to be heavier in
general. And when they do drop weight, they have a
harder time keeping it off than people who tend to
limit their choices of high-fat foods to one or two
But what's variety got to do with it? Calories are calories, right? Fat is fat.
What does it matter if you've got a choice of fat in four exciting flavors as
opposed to just one? It's not like you eat one
serving of each.
Or do you?
As it turns out, that's not too far off. When researchers look at the way people
actually eat, they find that the more different things we can eat, the more
different things we do eat, even when we've already eaten enough.
It's the buffet effect, in daily miniature. You know
how it is when we go to that all-you-can-eat buffet;
we just load up. It's not just that we're trying to get
our money's worth. The fact is, there's lots of good
stuff out there! You want to try a little of everything? or at least you try to stick with 'a little.'
Similarly, someone with three flavors of ice cream in
the freezer may start out by having an appropriate-
sized serving of butter-brickle belly-buster, but on
the way to the sink with that empty bowl, they're
quite likely to get detoured back to the freezer
somehow, for 'only a little ' of that raspberry ribbon
riot, and then after that, well, why not, 'just a
taste ' of the fudgy sludge.
And believe it or not, people manage to convince themselves that they've only had one dessert. But
those extra bites add up! they don't call it 'Chunky
Monkey ' for nothing!
The average American kid can absent-mindedly gnaw
through half a bag of potato chips in front of the TV
and then, bored, start in on the cheesy poofs, or
cookies or whatever's there, just because it is there.
Then what started out conveniently sitting on a
pantry shelf, very soon ends up inconveniently
hanging over that youngster's waistband. When we
have it, we eat it, and we gain.
But what might be more important about having
multiple high-fat temptations around is what they
may predict for our waists and our weight over the
Earlier studies had already showed that a lot of
available variety in high fat foods and treats seems
to make people eat more and interferes with weight
loss, so researchers took a look at the effect that all
that variety has on long-term weight maintenance.
The investigators studied participants in the National
Weight Loss Registry, a database of thousands of
Americans who have lost at least 30 pounds and kept
it off for at least two years. More than 2,000
registry members were in this study, all of whom had
maintained their reduced weight for six to seven
years. For comparison, other subjects came from a
behavioral weight loss program conducted in a
university, and they had all recently lost at least
seven percent of their body weight, a significant
But by six months into the study, after examining
everyone's reported eating habits within six food
groups (five from the USDA Food Guide Pyramid, and
a category for combination foods), the researchers
found that the folks from the registry had very little
variety of high-fat foods in their diets compared to
the folks who had recently lost a lot of weight in the
In fact, they found that those who seemed the most
successful at keeping their weight off had less
variety in their diets overall, except in the fruits and
combination foods, like stews and salads.
The researchers say that reducing the selection of
different foods probably helps maintain a lower
weight, and helps maintain a weight loss, over a long
Consider nearly any fad diet you've ever heard of-- the grapefruit diet, the
cabbage diet, even the vaunted Atkins diet. They've all got a different
nutritional spin, but researchers say these work
initially because of the rigorous limitations on what
you can eat, so you eat less in general. Even the
most ardent carnivore gets sick of steak day in and
day out. You can think of these approaches as
basically just reduced-calorie programs,
masquerading as wonder diets. You lose weight at
first, but eventually you have to add in different
foods, and if you keep adding until you're back to the typical American carnival
of consumption, you'll
probably end up adding the weight back on, too.
It wasn't always like this, either. The resplendent
dietary variety we're accustomed to with our well-
stocked pantries is basically a 20th century
phenomenon. It's so cheap and easy to have it all
now, so we do. In the past, big meals with a lot of
selections and multiple desserts took too much work
for daily preparations, so they were typically saved
for celebrations, while a few reliable standbys made
for daily dining.
So does it sound like the answer is to take the fun
out of eating? Give up enjoying food? Really, it's
quite the contrary. A generation ago, people rarely
ate out. It was a treat for special occasions.
Nowadays, nearly half the average American family's
food budget is spent on food prepared by someone
else. We eat out all the time and have the world's
cuisine to choose from! But how many times have
you heard, 'Let's go out. What do you want for
dinner?' And the answer is merely, 'Whatever.'
Quite frankly, the thrill is gone. If high-fat treats
and on-demand desserts are part of the daily diet,
what's left to make a special occasion special? Too
much of a good thing is no good; not for our health,
not even for our enjoyment of those things.
There are plenty of ways to make the daily diet
interesting with low-fat, healthy foods instead of
sweets and fatty indulgences with little nutritional
value. People who have kept their weight off seem
to have intuitively figured that out, and kept it
simple. And they've got the results to show for it.
But that doesn't mean they're not enjoying? really
enjoying? a good feast from time to time, too.
Through Thick and Thin:
We've evolved away from a more physical lifestyle
with limited dietary options to a more sedentary one
with vast choices for calorie consumption, and we
have the expected unhealthy consequences to show
for it. Simply eating fewer kinds of foods, especially
high-fat, calorie-dense foods, can be a big help in
keeping the pounds at bay. Our diet doesn't have to
be a smorgasbord every day, and in the long run, it's
probably more healthy and enjoyable if it isn't.