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Eating Patterns and Weight: Finding What’s Right for You

By Marlene Lesson, Nutrition Director, Structure House

There is no one-size-fits-all solution for weight control. Recent studies are beginning to identify eating patterns that are associated with healthy body weights. But none of these findings are of much value unless they are personalized for you. So get ready to look inward and reflect. You too can be successful if you take the time to get to know yourself.

Regular Breakfast Are you a regular breakfast eater? If so, you share a behavioral pattern that is characteristic of those who have successfully lost weight and kept it off. In one study, 78% of people who maintained the weight they lost ate breakfast every day of the week and only 4% never ate breakfast . In another study, breakfast skippers were 4.5 times more likely to be obese than those who regularly ate breakfast . Calories we eat in the morning tend to be more satiating and decrease the number of calories consumed in a 24-hour period. On the other hand, late night snacks do not seem to fill us up and increase our total daily calories .

Many of our clients have been perpetual breakfast skippers. At Structure House they have the opportunity to experience the new habit of regularly eating breakfast. Just by eating breakfast in our dining room they figure out for themselves that they need to eat breakfast at home in order to curb overeating later in the day. They have used the experience of eating breakfast every morning in our dining room as a learning opportunity. In other words, our dining room is a learning laboratory for many of our clients. You can create your own personal learning laboratory. Allow yourself the experience of eating breakfast regularly for a month to see how it works for you.

Meal Frequency Do you wonder if eating more or less frequently may have an effect on how many calories you eat and how much you weigh? Several studies have found an association between frequent snacking and greater body weight. One study of more than 4,000 people found that overweight people consumed snacks more frequently than those who were of normal weight . In another large study, individuals who ate regular meals, and seldom indulged in snacking and nibbling, were more successful at weight reduction after three years than those who ate fewer regular meals and nibbled .

We know that how frequently we eat will have an impact on our weight only if it affects our caloric intake . One study found that people are able to lose at least 30 pounds and keep it off for at least one year succeed, despite the fact that they eat just as often as the average American, nearly five times per day . Unlike the average American, these successful weight loss maintainers carefully regulate their food intake and exercise about one hour a day.

Another possible explanation for their success is rather than grazing, they engaged in eating no more than five discrete times each day. This minimizes the opportunities for using food to meet emotional needs. Adults can get all of the nutrition they need in three meals a day. When they eat more than three times a day they are more likely to eat because of habit, boredom and stress rather than real physiological hunger. Often it is difficult to tell is we are really hungry, especially if our environment has an abundance of high- calorie foods. For this reason limiting ourselves to three meals a day might be more foolproof.

What happens when people snack when they are not hungry? They fail to compensate by eating fewer calories at the next meal and they want their next meal just as soon as times when they did not indulge in snacking . In other words if we snack when we are not hungry it does not help us feel full. Snacks that are consumed when we are not hungry just add to the total calories we get in a day. And just remember that 100 extra calories a day accounts for ten pounds of body fat a year. As a result of their studies, these researchers have proposed clear definitions of what constitutes a meal and what constitutes a snack . They have proposed that a meal be considered as an eating episode that is preceded by hunger. On the other hand, a snack is defined as an eating episode that is motivated by reasons other than hunger.

Take time to ponder this information. What does it mean to you? It might be helpful to experience eating three healthy low-calorie-density meals each day with an adequate level of calories. In the beginning it might be difficult to eat enough healthy food at your meals if you have a history of grazing. Be patient with yourself. Give yourself enough time to learn from your new experience. Does a regular meal rhythm of three regular meals and infrequent episodes of eating for reasons other than nourishment help you control your food intake? When you are contending with difficult circumstances that are beyond your control having an additional structured eating time might be helpful. For example, you might have a very long stretch of time between lunch and dinner due to your work schedule. Planning a healthy additional eating time in the afternoon might leave you less hungry and less likely to overindulge when you finally have the opportunity to eat dinner.

Food Variety Nutrition experts have traditionally maintained that we need to eat a variety of foods in order to get the wide spectrum of nutrients needed for health. Now these experts are beginning to question their own advice. Although dietary variety may be helpful for nutrition it may not optimize weight control. Humans have always loved dietary variety. The problem is that when we are presented with food having a wide variety of sensory attributes (tastes, smell, colors, textures) we are inclined to eat more. One study found that 2,237 people who were able to lose weight and keep it off ate a diet with very low variety in all food groups, particularly food groups that were higher in fat . Indeed many or our successful clients at Structure House tell us that they are more successful in controlling weight at home when they eat a simple diet that tends to have less variety than they ate in the past.

Within most food groups (sweets, snacks, condiments, entrees and carbohydrates) the more variety we eat the more calories we consume and the higher our percentage of body fat . On the other hand, when we eat greater variety from the vegetable group we tend to consumer fewer calories and have less body fat. Variety within the fruit and dairy groups seems to have little impact on how much we eat and our body fatness.

Have you ever wondered why you can only eat so much of a salty food before tiring of it and wanting something sweet? This can be explained by the principle of sensory specific satiety. As we eat, the pleasure we get from one food gradually declines but a new food with different sensory attributes reawakens our appetites. Meals with many flavors, colors, textures tend to enhance our appetites and prolong our eating, while meals that are less varied in sensory attributes tend to help us feel full and stop eating sooner.

These new findings can help you with your weight control efforts if you take the time to get to know yourself. Everyone is different. Some people require more dietary variety than others to continue their healthy eating plan as a permanent lifestyle change. You will have to discover the amount of variety that is right for you. An amount that will allow you to stick with your plan but not so much that you become overly interested in food and begin to overeat. Many find that they are more successful when they strive for more variety in the lower calorie density food groups (vegetables, fruits, low-fat dairy) and less in the higher calorie food groups (meats, starches, fats, entrees, sweets, snacks).

Conclusion Is regulating your food intake to maintain a healthy weight an automatic behavior? Can you do so without even thinking about it? For most of us, it is not. Controlling weight is a long-term process that requires thoughtful introspection and conscious effort. Based on these new findings you may want to challenge some of your old assumptions. Implement some of the eating patterns suggested above. Then carefully assess how they can be individualized to work for you.

By Marlene Lesson Marlene Lesson, M.S., R.D., L.D.N., C.D.E., is nutrition director of Structure House, a residential weight loss facility in Durham, N.C. that offers a unique behavioral approach to weight loss and healthy lifestyle change.