Menu Diversity May Be a Recipe for Obesity

They say the way to a man's heart is through his stomach, but perhaps menu monotony is the way to keep his heart healthy.

New research suggests repeated exposure to a food may be what's needed to reduce excess consumption of it. A study conducted by researchers from the University of Buffalo and the University of Florida compared the behavior of two groups of obese and non-obese women. Sixteen of the women were randomly assigned to a weekly food test group and the other 16 were followed on a daily basis.

Both groups participated in 28-minute experimental food exposure sessions. The weekly women were tested once per week for five weeks. The daily dames were studied for five consecutive days. During each session, study subjects completed a variety of tasks and were "rewarded" with macaroni and cheese doled out in 125 calorie portions. Participants could work for as much food as they wanted before evaluated for the total energy intake.

By the end of the study period, University of Buffalo professor Leonard Epstein, Ph.D, and his University of Florida colleagues Nicole Avena, Ph.D, and Mark Gold, MD, found that the once-a-day group got mac-and-cheesed out—eating 30 less calories of the classic comfort food per session—while the weekly group increased their intake by 100 calories. Little difference was found between how obese and non-obese individuals responded. The researchers explained the phenomenon as "habituation" or loss of interest resulting from over exposure.

Study authors Avena and Gold believe that reducing food variety may be an important weight-loss strategy. But Courtney Gravense, MS, RD disagrees. "Dieters may already be dealing with a limited menu," says the mom of two adding that finicky eaters are often the most challenging patients. "In my experience working with overweight clients, the dieters with the least amount of flexibility—the ones who won't do spicy, hate veggies, or have long lists of foods they find unappealing—have the most trouble losing weight. Omnivores who eat everything are often more successful. Introducing and enjoying new foods can be very inspirational for weight loss."

Even so, Gravenese acknowledges there are instances when limiting certain foods is necessary. "I had a client who could not control himself around pasta. He'd eat large amounts of it going way beyond what was needed to satisfy his appetite. Something else—possibly psychological—was going on," the dietician explains. "If a particular food triggers that kind of trouble, then it should be limited—or banned initially—and gradually reintroduced once control is established."

Clearly, more research is needed to sort out the issue but in the meantime, Avena and Gold are advocating menu monotony. They believe it may be time for school-lunch planners and public health officials to rethink their menus and give thought to the idea that less is more. "Having so many food choices is not necessarily a virtue but instead seems to be associated with excess calorie intake and increased body mass index," said Avena in a UF press release.

So, before you say, "Chicken, again?" consider the possibility of menu monotony for yourself. You just may be able to bore yourself thin!




The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition

University of Florida

University of Buffalo

Interview with Courtney Gravenese MS, RD