Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Data-driven dieting

The interesting thing about dieting is that while everyone knows what you need to do to lose weight (eat less and move more), very few people know much about how to get yourself to do these things.

So, how do you increase your willpower? 

1. Don’t get too hungry.
It seems that there is a link between blood sugar and self control. For example, this study showed that when you perform an act requiring self-control, your blood sugar drops, and that when you have low blood sugar, your performance on subsequent self-control tasks decreases. This is a good reason to heed the oft-quoted diet advice to eat small meals 5-6 times a day as this stabilizes the blood sugar and keeps the cookie monster at bay.

2. Use your imagination.
Tempting treats are nearly everywhere around us at this time of year: leftover Halloween candy, holiday parties, home-baked treats, etc. How should you respond to a tempting, but fattening treat in your vicinity? According to this study, try to imagine it in non-food context. Instead of seeing brownies, see chocolate door stops. Instead of candies, checkers pieces. Just try to think of as many non-food uses for the item. Researchers found that subjects who were told to think of non-food uses for tempting chocolate rated chocolate as less appealing than those who were instructed to think of chocolate as delicious.

3. Adjust your mental model.
Earlier, I wrote about a recent paper refuting a long-held model of self-control that asserted that self-control is a limited resource that gets depleted with use. This paper demonstrated that not believing in this model led to higher performance on a self-control task.

Gailliot, M., Baumeister, R., DeWall, C., Maner, J., Plant, E., Tice, D., Brewer, L., & Schmeichel, B. (2007). Self-control relies on glucose as a limited energy source: Willpower is more than a metaphor. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92 (2), 325-336 DOI: 10.1037/0022-3514.92.2.325

Hofmann, W., Deutsch, R., Lancaster, K., & Banaji, M. (2009). Cooling the heat of temptation: Mental self-control and the automatic evaluation of tempting stimuli European Journal of Social Psychology DOI: 10.1002/ejsp.708


  1. Er - not so much.

    You are actually describing strategies to deal with addiction. In this case, it would be to foods with high hedonistic value - those with added sugars and optimal fat ratios to enhance mouth feel and to cause blood glucose peaks and troughs. Processed foods with added sugars leave people with insatiable sensations of hunger. Eating frequent small meals continually causes blood glucose spikes and falls, and only by eliminating added sugar from the diet and reverting to a pattern of eating two to three meals during an 8 hour period per day will correct this.

    Moreover, you are conflating dieting as a time limited function with treating diet as the development and maintenance of lifelong eating patterns. The model you use as implicit reference is about sacrifice and perceived suffering (hunger, food deprivation, willpower.

    A more useful frame of reference would be to reconsider added sugar processed foods (e.g. non-fruit) as rare to occasional treats, not to be consumed on a daily or more frequent basis. More important, a diet frame of reference (vs. dieting) deals with learning to consistently select the most nutrient dense foods which provide high palatability, pleasing mouth feel, favorable aromas, and culturally accepted fare.

    It takes at least 66 days to solidify a new habit, and it takes about 30 days of eliminating added sugar foods in order to re-regulate blood glucose, insulin resistance, leptin and ghrelin levels and the ability to discern the sweetness of non-added sugar foods.

    It might be useful to look at resetting diet (as in dietary choices and eating patterns) within this sort of timeframe with an eye toward permanent food choice selection instead of strategies to deal with self-deprivation.

  2. Great comments - thanks!

    I agree with much of what you said. There does seem to be mounting evidence that foods of high hedonistic value are treated more like drugs of addiction than "normal" foods (Kessler's book, End of Overeating reviews this). And I fully agree that successful weight loss involves changing one's way of eating permanently.

    However, in the 66+ days one is developing new habits and selecting better whole foods, one must be able to resist old habits and I do think these are solid strategies for being able to do that. I am not saying that one on a diet must eschew all treats until the end of the diet, I am saying that treats should be in moderation and moderation requires self-control.

    I don't have much to say about the 3 meals or 6 meals issue, you seem very well versed in the nutrition literature. Does eating low-glycemic small meals still cause the glucose spiking?

    Re: "it takes about 30 days of eliminating added sugar foods in order to re-regulate blood glucose, insulin resistance, leptin and ghrelin levels and the ability to discern the sweetness of non-added sugar foods."
    Interesting! Could you send me the reference(s)?