Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Smaller Snacks, Bigger Bellies?

Despite a new food guide pyramid, 2010 Dietary Guidelines, and an explosion of weight loss products, there is no sign of obesity relief.  Americans are trading value-based “super-sized” portions for mini versions of junk-food favorites.  But are dwarfed Chips Ahoy and Oreo Cookies really the answer? 

Ask Rita Coelho Do Vale and her crew at Tilburg University in the Netherlands—you’ll probably get a big and giant “NO!”  This research group asked “does having access to several little bags of snacks really make a weight-conscious person able to control his or her intake better?”  In order to find out, the researchers first made half of the participants “weight-conscious” by weighing them in front of a mirror—sounds like fun, right?  Anyway, the other half didn’t have to do this part.  After that the both groups of volunteers were plopped in front of a TV and asked to “rate advertising.”  While watching TV, participants had access to many small packages of chips (like 100 calorie packs) and two large bags of chips.

The people who did not get weighed, and were not prepped to be weight conscious, ate the same amount of chips, independent of whether they chose to eat from the small or large bags.  The participants subjected to the sadistic weighing protocol ate significantly more chips if they chose to start munching on the nine small bags, instead of two large bags.

But what does it all mean?  Essentially, the study results suggest that people who are weight conscious and have access to many tiny portions may be tempted to overeat. Several 100 calorie packs will quickly add up to the same amount of Calorie damage as an ice cream sundae, with only a fraction of the satisfaction.  Does this mean that manufacturers of mini cookie bites are pure evil?  Probably not.  As I told my disgruntled students yesterday in class, 100 Calorie packs aren’t a healthful choice—they are about 100% refined carbohydrates (added sugars and processed grains), and the new 2010 Dietary Guidelines explicitly recommend that we avoid these types of food.  But they there may be a way to include 100 calorie packs without overdoing it if you really enjoy them. 

How can someone include these types of foods in a reasonable way?  Most importantly, do not go for the variety packs, which include an assortment of treats in one package.  Having several small portions of a variety of junk foods is disastrous for the same reasons as belt-busting buffets.  Variety is the spice of life; unfortunately, junk-food variety is a nutrition nightmare.  Research, dating as far back as the 70s and 80s, shows that increased food variety also adds up to more overall calorie intake.  In 1981 Barbara Rolls and pals showed that different sandwich fillings caused people to eat more sandwiches—even boring food will be eaten in excess if there is a lot of variety and easy access.  As such, if you choose to buy 100 calorie packs, go for only one kind of treat.  Also, keep the foods stashed away in the cupboards.  Out of sight…   

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