Can You Psych Yourself Slim?

Portion-control plates. The Weight Watchers point system. New 100-calorie snack packs on grocery store shelves.

The battle to fight weight gain, once waged primarily on dinner tables and treadmills, has entered a new era: psychological warfare.

The mission: to usher in strategies that tilt the battleground, however slightly, in the favor of those hoping to adopt healthier patterns of eating.

In the latest salvo, universities including Harvard and William and Mary have begun instituting "no tray" policies in their dining halls.

In addition to cutting down on environmental waste — and the cost of wasted food — proponents of the move say it will help students make healthier choice when it comes to portion sizes.

"[T]his reduction in consumption could have an effect on individual student health: Not only will students be forced to stand up and walk to the kitchen when they're still hungry, but they're likely to avoid the excessive eating that trays so frequently encourage," reads an editorial in the Feb. 5 issue of The Crimson, Harvard's student newspaper.

The strategy is not without its opponents; some students feel it causes more inconvenience than it is worth.

But diet experts say taking away the trays can translate into a successful portion control strategy that can help many to control their caloric intake.

"Most people live by the 'Field of Dreams' philosophy when it comes to eating — if it is there, we will eat it," said Leslie Bonci, director of sports nutrition at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. "So what makes the most sense is to make eating a little less available and put eating boundaries into the equation."

Mary Beth Kavanagh, instructor at the Department of Nutrition at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, says that while the environmental considerations to such a plan are important, the measures could also have hidden benefits for students.

"Eliminating cafeteria trays forces people to use one plate and one hand and that might limit portions or choices," Kavanagh said. "I have always encouraged my clients to use smaller plates, to eat from a small bowl rather than a large container."

"The tricks really do work; so much eating is simply unconsciously finishing what was placed on the plate."

The Psychological Side of Eating

"Behavioral modification has been a mainstay for weight loss for decades ever since B. F. Skinner conceptualized it," said Dr. Charles Clark, associate dean and professor of medicine at Indiana University School of Medicine.

As an example, Clark cites a 1993 study in the journal Annals of Internal Medicine titled "Evidence for Success of Behavior Modification in Weight Loss and Control."

In this study, researchers from Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas, encouraged obese individuals to adopt certain habits — helpful "tricks" if you will — to aid them in achieving their weight loss goals. These measures included keeping food and exercise records, restricting the presence of unhealthy foods in the immediate environment, and treating themselves to rewards if exercise goals were met.

What the researchers found was that when combined with a low-calorie diet, these strategies helped obese participants lose weight — and nearly a third of them kept the weight off for years afterward, compared to only 5 percent of those who stuck to a low-calorie diet without adopting these healthy habits.

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