Looking to kick the weight once and for all? One solution (out of many of course) might be as simple as eating a boring diet.
In this mini-article series I’ll discuss evidence for and against using a repetitive diet to successfully lose and maintain weight. Here in part one, I’ll discuss a bit about my experience with repetitive diets, a few of the reasons these diets might work, and findings from observational studies (see here for explanation).
Part One: Introduction and Observational Evidence
At the heart of our country’s obesity epidemic is overconsumption of calories. One of the primary reasons people tend to overeat is because the food in front of us makes happy . This idea makes a ton of sense intuitively, but the notion of reducing caloric intake by eating repetitive meals to make food less pleasurable has not received the same type of attention as other strategies, such as following a low carb or low fat diet, or strategies like intermittent fasting. So in this mini-series, we’ll explore the idea that repetitive eating may be a viable option for not only losing weight, but keeping it off!
My interest in this topic stems from my own experiences. In high school I lost nearly 80 lbs in about 6 months my junior year. Being a student “athlete” requires a lot of routine as is, but my after school snacks and dinners were killing me. So when I became committed to my health and losing weight I adopted a repetitive diet with great success. I found it easier to eat a very limited rotation of meals for dinner and the structured school day made eating the same thing for breakfast and lunch pretty easy. I remember the two staple dinner meals I usually ate were: 1) chicken and rice with vegetables and a sauce; and 2) tacos made with low fat cheese, copious amounts of vegetables, 97% lean ground beef, and vegetarian refried beans. I’ll share more of the details on my experience with repetitive dieting later on but here’s why repetitive diets may work from a physiological perspective.
Evolutionary biology tells us that animals are evolutionary adapted to have four basic drives which allow the species to exist/evolve. They are often called the four Fs: fighting, fleeing, fornicating, and feeding (more about that here). It’s no surprise feeding, or acquiring adequate food and water, is also mentioned at the highest level in hierarchy of needs theory (here). We are hard-wired with food motivations that kept our ancestors alive and fertile. We are naturally attracted to features of food that indicate caloric and nutrient density. For example, in our ancestor’s day, sweetness would have indicated a high calorie and nutrient dense food, like ripe fruit or honey.
We do have physiological mechanisms in place to control our appetite and regulate our body weight, but they can be overridden when we have copious quantities and variety of food choices. Brain areas involved in reward (positive feelings, pleasure) and cognition (thought), and can override metabolic signals such as leptin (fullness) and ghrelin (hunger) . Obviously a lot of other factors go into how much one eats, but for the sake of the article, you can think of this balance of eating for pleasure vs. eating for hunger as a teeter-totter. Some people feel a little full and stop eating, whether or not the meal is enjoyable or not. For others, a very pleasurable meal motivates them to keep eating beyond satiety. For those who do tend to keep eating (like me!), it generally leads to excess caloric intake and weight gain. One strategy to determine how overweight people can successfully cope with overeating is through observational studies. Here in the U.S, the The National Weight Control Registry is the largest dataset ever collected on individuals who have lost and maintained a significant amount of weight.
The National Weight Control Registry (NWCR; see here) was established in 1994 by Rena Wing, PhD from Brown Medical School and James O. Hill, PhD from the University of Colorado. The NWCR was developed to identify and research the traits of people who succeed at long-term weight loss. Success is defined as losing at least 10% of initial body weight and maintaining the loss for at least 1 year. Per the NWCR website, over 10,000 individuals are being tracked and weight loss ranges from 30 to 300 lbs, with an average weight loss of about 70 lbs. Several detailed questionnaires and follow-up surveys are used to examine these individuals’ behavioral and psychological profiles to identify common strategies or characteristics that help with weight loss. So what are some of the main findings among successful weight losers?
● 90% exercise (average of one hour per day)
● 75% weigh themselves at least once a week
● 62% watch less than 10 hours of TV per week
● 59% report eating a consistent diet on weekdays and weekdays
Another common trait among the successful weight losers- registry members reported consuming a diet with very low variety in most food groups (for example meat, grains, dairy, sweets) but especially foods higher in fat density. The exceptions were fruit and combination foods, which consisted of things like beef stew, spaghetti, and vegetable soup . Another interesting study from the registry found that participants with the highest physical activity lost the most weight, but more relevant to this article, the also reported lower fat intake, more dietary restraint, and greater reliance on targeted dietary strategies to maintain weight loss. Both of the last two traits could include the use of repetitive diets.
To sum things up here, I’ve introduced how I successfully used repetitive eating to lose weight (I will elaborate more later in series), how pleasure might cause someone to overeat, and described findings from the National Weight Control Registry. In part two I will discuss experimental studies indicating repetitive eating may help reduce caloric intake in humans and that variety does trigger overeating in animal models.
1. Westenhoefer, J. and V. Pudel, Pleasure from food: importance for food choice and consequences of deliberate restriction. Appetite, 1993. 20(3): p. 246-9.
2. Zheng, H. and H.R. Berthoud, Eating for pleasure or calories. Curr Opin Pharmacol, 2007. 7(6): p. 607-12.
3. Raynor, H.A., et al., Amount of food group variety consumed in the diet and long-term weight loss maintenance. Obes Res, 2005. 13(5): p. 883-90.