Hidden Cause of Overeating: Dietary Variety

Having too many options can widen our waistlines

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Factors beyond hunger cause us to eat and overeat. Tuning in to what they are can help you eat the foods you love without overdoing it. This is the first post in a series on how to eat without sabotaging your weight and your health.

Katherine Tallmadge
Katherine Tallmadge
A client of mine attended a dinner party with the intention of only 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 hors d'oeuvre before dinner. What she hadn't counted on was for "one of each" to mean sampling five fattening hors d'oeuvres—all before sitting down to a four-course meal. Her experience is not unusual.

Over the years, I have noticed that people who frequent receptions, parties, and restaurants have more trouble losing weight and controlling other health factors, such as cholesterol levels, than their eat-from-home counterparts. I assumed the problem was the fattening nature of the food or the large portions you get when you're out. And while these may still be important, new research suggests that the most important driver of excessive caloric intake may instead be: variety.

Variety? Throughout human history, the urge for dietary variety has helped us stay healthy. People who ate different types of food each day were—and still are—more likely to obtain all their essential nutrients. But today, because of the array of unhealthy, processed, and fattening foods available, our attraction to dietary variety is no longer the asset it once was.

Studies confirm that more is eaten during a meal containing a variety of foods, than during a meal with just one food, even if that food is a favorite. When people are offered different shapes or flavors, they eat more, too, such as pasta salad featuring numerous noodle shapes versus just one. And two recent studies found that when people were exposed to more dietary variety and restaurants (where there is more variety by definition) over six months, overall calorie intake and body fatness increased. Interestingly, this holds true across different ethnic groups.

"Variety has an enormous passive effect on calorie intake," says Susan B. Roberts, professor of nutrition at Tufts University School of Medicine in Boston. "The higher the variety of items you are confronted with, the more people consume without even realizing it." This makes sense: When you eat just one food, the pleasure of its taste and appearance decreases; eating a variety of foods does the opposite.

My client's dinner experience was the perfect illustration of the concept. She ate more simply because there was more variety (one or two of each different kind). If there had been only one type of hors d'oeuvre, she would have naturally eaten much less—one or two of one kind.

This urge is so innate that limiting choices is an important solution to overeating and weight problems, according to researchers. This may be why rigid diets seem to work well—at least temporarily—no matter what type they are, or why going to a health spa where choices are limited, can be such a boon for some people.

But minus the ability to eat by rigid—and often unhealthy—dietary rules indefinitely or luxuriate at a spa with regimented meals forever, what's a person to do?

Strategies:

• Prioritize: Limit the variety of fattening foods you expose yourself and others to, so you'll naturally eat less of them. Serve fewer types of fattening appetizers, side dishes, and desserts (no one will notice the difference).

• If you want variety, go for healthy foods such as fruits and vegetable dishes; vegetable variety is actually correlated with leanness.

• Headed to a restaurant? Study the menu and make your decision ahead of time, before letting variety tempt you once there.

Hungry for more? Write to eatandrun@usnews.com with your questions, concerns, and feedback.

Katherine Tallmadge, MA, RD, LD, is the author of Diet Simple: 195 Mental Tricks, Substitutions, Habits & Inspirations, and President of Personalized Nutrition, where she custom-designs holistic nutrition and weight loss programs for individuals and companies. Katherine is passionate about helping people transform their health and their lives through counseling, writing, speaking engagements, and regular appearances in the national media.