Want to lose weight? How about trying to bore yourself thin? According to a study that will be published in the August issue of The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, monotony at mealtime might be a clever — if unexciting — way to reduce calorie consumption.
Human beings come pre-loaded with a sort of habituation threshold and it shows itself in a lot of ways. Hear the same pop song too often and you eventually want to fling the CD out the window. See the same sitcom re-run enough times and the jokes just aren’t funny anymore. The same holds true for food — even your favorites get boring if you eat the same thing over and over without shaking up the menu a little. It’s not even necessary that the repetitive food be boring: you’ll habituate to pizza almost as easily as you do to boiled chicken.
Straightforward as that simple idea seems, there’s been surprisingly little hard research to measure it in any kind of empirical way. In the new study, University of Buffalo nutritionist Leonard Epstein and his colleagues recruited 32 women — half of them obese, half nonobese – and divided them into two groups, also with equal numbers of overweight and normal weight subjects. The women were instructed to perform an assigned task for 28 minutes, after which they were given 125-cal. portions of macaroni and cheese and allowed as many additional helpings as they wanted.
All of the women went through five such 28-min. sessions — the only difference was, half of them did so on five consecutive days and half came back once a week for five weeks. By the end of all of the sessions, the once-a-day group had decreased its calorie intake of macaroni by about 30 cal. per session, while the once-a-weekers had increased theirs by 100 cal. The conclusion: the first group had simply gotten sick of the stuff.
By itself, the research is not the kind of thing that gets the Nobel folks printing up the award announcements, but it does suggest a starting point for further research. “Repeated presentations once a day compared with once a week provide a reference point for the interval between food presentations that could lead to long-term habituation,” wrote Epstein and his colleagues. In other words, adjust the sliding scale of lag time between repetitive meals until you find the point at which the food is not so overfamilar that you go running to some high-calorie alternative, but not so novel that you gorge on it when you see it.
Further research, the investigators believe, could also shed light on the link between overeating and addiction. Some nutritionists theorize that the obese may suffer from a too-high habituation threshold, taking much longer to get tired of a food than other people. A similar miscalibration could also be at work in the case of alcoholism and addictive drug use. In all of those cases, it’s impossible to say you’ve had enough until you truly feel you’ve had enough.