I want you to close your eyes and picture this… You’re at a tea party and there is only one type of biscuit offered - how about one of my favourites like a dark chocolate coated oat cookie. How many would you have ? One ? Two ? Now picture another scene - you’re at another party and there are four different types of cookies. How many will you have? One of each? More?
Now let’s imagine something else. For your snack, you have a choice of eating apples OR a basic fruit salad ? Now picture something else, you find yourself at another event and the buffet is filled with a variety of fruits like berries, mangoes, pineapple, sliced sweet bananas, crunchy apples, nuts, cheese and those cute hors d’oeuvres… not to mention the prosecco or the gin and tonic … oooh and there’s more ! There is also a sit down dinner to a four course meal ! Now be brutally honest with your answer … Will you eat more of the apples, the basic fruit salad or will you walk away from the fancy event feeling stuffed ! ?
Yep ! I think you get the picture now. I may have exaggerated a little - but it happens to all of us to varying degrees.
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 be served while out.
And while these may indeed be important issues, new research is indicating that the single most important factor causing excessive caloric intake, in other words eating way too much - may instead boil down to, too much variety.
One of the earliest quotes I heard my mother using was that “variety was the spice of life” ..
Wouldn’t it be ironic if one of the very things we hold dear – variety and freedom of choice among the diverse and expansive food supplies – is the very thing making us fat?
Our instinctual urge to eat a varied diet 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.
Let’s pull out the rat study - because studies show that humans don’t react any differently to rats. When the rat’s regular diet is changed to a diet with a variety of choices, they eat more calories and gain weight.
In another study which set out to prove that when people were offered different shapes or flavours - they tend to eat more. In this case they used pasta, when the subjects were offered more than one shape of pasta in a bowl, they ate more than if there was just one shape I quote Susan B. Roberts a professor of nutrition at the Tufts University Medical School… She says - “Variety has an enormous passive effect on calorie intake” “The higher the variety of items you are confronted with, the more most people consume without even realizing it”.
Today’s variety is overwhelming and usually involves an array of high fat and calorie options, which studies show increased body fatness. (though, eating many different types of vegetable gets you skinny , but we too rarely benefit from this fact) “Variety creates torture,” - which at the end of the day - perhaps less is more.
Our instinctual urge to eat more is so ingrained in us that the only solution to overeating and weight problems is to limit our choices. This may be why rigid diets seem to work well – at least for a short while, – no matter what type they are, or why going to a health farm and spa where choices are limited, is such a relief for some people.
I mean if everyone in a Western country could move to an African village in the middle of nowhere, and trust me I have been there - everyone would be thin !
But let’s get back to reality, we’re not going to move to an African village or stay indefinitely at a health spa, so, what’s a person to do?
Well … there’s a couple of things you could do, to help you navigate through the world of variety
One of the easiest things to start with is by serving a variety of fruits and vegetables to your family and guests.. I bet you they’ll eat more healthy foods without even noticing it - especially if you have prepared a large platter with lots of different coloured fruits and vegetables.
I remember for my daughter’s birthday party - one of the center pieces was a large silver tray filled with carrot, cucumber and red, yellow and orange peppers cut into sticks. I would add cherry tomatoes, and grapes. Next to it would be some dips… I can say that it was one of the first things to go. And yes mummies, we did have cake, jelly and finger foods.
Another thing that you can do is to reduce the variety of fattening appetizers, side dishes, and desserts, no one will notice..
You can also 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.
A client of mine introduced me to a company that delivers fresh fruits and vegetables that are also chopped up and ready to eat.
So no excuses ! If you don’t have the time to prepare it yourself - order it online and get it delivered.
Healthy eating doesn’t have to be boring, you can use lots of herbs, spices, colourful fruits and vegetables by eating the colours of the rainbow - and thinking outside the box by playing around with texture, shapes and colours.
For example you could try making zucchini noodles with pesto or a marinara sauce. If you feel like something comforting you could have some chicken with carrot or cauliflower mash.
Then there’s the social life - restaurants - perhaps before you go to a restaurant, check out their menu online and make your choice ahead of time so that you’re not tempted by the fattening array of choices once you’re there.
And last but not least when you go grocery shopping - do so with a list and stick to it 97% . I always give myself that 3% to buy the odd less healthy foods which make life a little sweeter ! Like I always say, life has it’s zigs and zags - as long as there are more zigs than zags - we are on the right path !
While the idea that ‘variety is the spice of life’ does not apply to promoting healthy diets and weight control across the board, we may still find that variety is good if we apply it to fruits, vegetables and other single ingredient foods !
Barbara is a qualified nutritionist offering Health, Nutrition & Lifestyle Counseling. She gives Healthy weight loss advice and promotes the Mediterranean diet. She is the author of the Med Life Diet - creating healthy lifestyle habits and attitudes for life !