Too Many Choices! How Variety Leads to Obesity


photo by ADA

Scenario one:You’re at a party and there is one type of cookie offered – chocolate chip with walnuts. How many will you have? One? Two? Three? You’re at another party and there are eight types of cookies. How many will you have? One of each? More?

Scenario two: For your snack, you have a choice of eating apples OR a fruit salad filled with a variety of fruits like tart berries, mangoes, pineapple, sliced sweet bananas, crunchy apples and nuts. Will you eat more of the apple or the fruit salad?

A client of mine recently attended a dinner party with the clear intention of just nibbling on a few things. But by the time her evening was over, she was stuffed, what she ate seemed a blur, and the food lingered in her stomach like a rock. Her plan that evening was to eat conservatively: to taste just one of each passed hors d’oeuvre before she sat down to dinner. What she hadn’t counted on was “one of each” turned out to be five fattening little hors d’oeuvres, and that was before sitting down to a four course meal! Her experience is not unusual.

Over the years, I’ve noticed that my clients who attend a lot of receptions, parties, and restaurants have more trouble losing weight than their eat-at-home counterparts. I always assumed the problem was the fattening nature of the food or the large portions you’re more likely to get while out.

And while these may indeed be important issues, new research is indicating that the single most important factor causing excessive caloric intake may instead be: too much variety.

Variety? I’ve always been taught that variety was the spice of life – a good thing. My advice has always been that eating a variety of foods is the basis of good nutrition, and that’s been the mantra of nutrition experts through the centuries.

Wouldn’t it be ironic if one of the very things we Americans hold dear – variety and freedom of choice among the most diverse and expansive food supplies in the world – is the very thing making us fat?

The urge for dietary variety is important for health and was helpful during evolution. People who ate different types of food each day were – and are – more likely to obtain all the essential nutrients. Infants embrace variety and when presented with a large array of different healthful foods will naturally select a well-balanced diet, according to a classic study from the early 1900’s. But today, because of the wide array of unhealthy, fattening food available, our attraction to dietary variety may be getting us into trouble. The scientific evidence has been building for decades.

Animals eat more when given variety, according to several studies conducted over the past forty years. When rats are switched from regular rat chow to a variety of choices, they eat more calories, causing weight gain

Studies confirm that humans don’t react any differently than rats. More is eaten during a meal containing a variety of foods, than during a meal with just one food, even if that one food is a favorite, concluded a classic study published two decades ago in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

This study found that when people were offered different shapes or flavors, they ate more. When subjects were offered more than one shape of pasta in a bowl, for instance, they ate more than when there was just one shape in the bowl. Apparently, as you’re eating the same food, the pleasure of its taste and appearance decreases, while a different food still remains attractive. This, concluded the study, promotes consumption of a varied diet. At the time, researchers weren’t as concerned about overconsumption and didn’t know if the effect would last over time or cause weight gain.

But, given the recent concern over Americans’ expanding waistlines, the concept was recently tested. Two studies, published in 1999 and 2003 in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, found that when people are exposed to more dietary variety and restaurants (where there is more variety by definition) over six months, overall calorie intake and body fatness increases. Interestingly, people react the same way in cultures as diverse as American and Chinese.

“Variety has an enormous passive effect on calorie intake,” says Susan B. Roberts, the study’s co-author and professor of nutrition at the Tufts University Medical School. “The higher the variety of items you are confronted with, the more most people consume without even realizing it.”

My client’s dinner experience was the perfect illustration of the concept. She ate more, simply because there was more variety. Even if she became satisfied with one course and didn’t finish it, a new flavor from the next course created excitement. Had there been fewer courses or only one type of hors d’oeuvre, she would have eaten less – and been satisfied. But because there were five types of hors d’oeuvres, she ate five! (though she was tempted to eat more of one or two, which she liked more than the others)

Today’s variety is overwhelming and usually involves an array of high fat and calorie options, which the studies showed increased body fatness. (though, vegetable variety increased leanness, but we too rarely benefit from this fact)

“Variety creates torture,” says Barry Schwartz, professor of psychology at Swarthmore College and author of “The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less” (Harper Collins, 2005). “At a buffet, people may choose everything for fear that if they only choose some things, they’ll regret their choice. Of course, taking everything guarantees you’re going to take too much.”

Schwartz and Roberts both agreed that this urge is so innate that limiting choices is the only solution to overeating and weight problems. This may be why rigid diets seem to work well – at least temporarily – no matter what type they are, or why going to a spa where choices are limited, is such a relief for some people. Roberts suggested an even more extreme measure.

“If I could move everyone in America to Senegal, an agricultural community, everyone would be thin!” says Roberts.

But minus the ability to eat by rigid, depriving – and often unhealthy – dietary rules indefinitely, luxuriate at a spa, or move to Africa, what’s a person to do?

* Serve a variety of fruits and vegetables to your family and guests, and they’ll eat more healthy foods, without being the wiser,

* Reduce the variety of fattening appetizers, side dishes, and desserts, no one will notice,

* Control the food in your environment, since you’ll tend to eat whatever is accessible. Make sure a variety of fruits, vegetables and healthy foods are more easily available,

* Eat as much variety of flavors, textures, colors and shapes at each meal – within your calorie allotment – to feel the most satisfaction with the meal,

* Before going to a restaurant, review the menu (ie, online) and make your choice ahead of time so that you’re not tempted by the fattening array of choices once you’re there,

* Always grocery shop with a list, so the variety of fattening food doesn’t suck you in.

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