The Washington Post

A different approach to cutting calories

In a study appearing in the August issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, researchers found that people who ate macaroni and cheese every day for five days ended up consuming less than those who ate macaroni and cheese once a week for five weeks.

The study set out to examine whether the phenomenon known as “habituation” might curb food consumption. As the study explains it, “Habituation is a form of learning in which repeated exposure to a stimulus leads to a decrease in responding.” In this instance, researchers looked at people’s response to repeated exposure to a food. The study notes that habituation to food has been observed in animals, but it hadn’t, until now, been shown to apply to human eating habits.

The study involved 16 obese women and 16 nonobese women; half of each group got macaroni daily, the other half weekly. After their initial servings, they could press a button to get more mac and cheese.

In the end, among obese and normal-weight participants alike, those who ate macaroni and cheese daily ate less per session as the week progressed; those who ate it weekly actually increased the amount they ate from session to session. That suggests that daily, but not weekly, exposure to a food might lead to habituation.

Why does this matter? The study points out that science has shown that people who are presented with the same food day after day end up eating less; introducing variety increases food consumption. By looking at that through the lens of “habituation theory,” the new research helps us understand why and how that might work. It also begins to outline a model of how habituation could be put to use in weight-management efforts; we now know that habituation is more likely to occur when exposure to a food occurs daily rather than weekly.

Do you think reducing the variety in your diet might help you manage your food consumption better? Could you eat the same thing for dinner night after night?


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