The Science of Eating Better

by Matthew Kadey, MS, RD on Apr 17, 2016

Nutrition

These nutrition tips drawn from scientific studies can help your clients tune out dubious dietary advice.

America isn’t just drowning in sugary liquid calories—it’s also neck-deep in opinions about the best ways of eating to slim down. Health bloggers, co-workers, in-laws and Facebook friends are all chiming in these days with their two cents’ worth on how to win the battle of the bulge.

Perhaps you’ve heard that gluten is keeping the nation’s belt buckles a little tighter or that expensive juice cleanses are a surefire way to flush toxins and excess fat from your system. Is coconut oil really the magic it takes to hone a six-pack?

With all these dubious opinions swarming about, the public should rightfully be aching for a handful of weight-loss eating strategies supported by research, and that is exactly what the following advice is based on. Implementing these science-backed dietary maneuvers can help anyone eat better and say sayonara to pesky excess pounds. Best of all, none of these tactics requires anything as draconian as ruling out chocolate.

Drink Water Before Dining

While imbibing sugary drinks isn’t much help in the war on body fat, it turns out that kicking off a meal with a glass of water could play a role in healthy weight loss. A 2015 study in the journal Obesity found that overweight people who sipped 2 cups of tap water 30 minutes before their main meals lost an average of about 3 pounds more weight over a 12-week period than those who were simply advised to visualize having a full stomach before eating (Parretti et al. 2015).

All subjects received weight management guidance from the British researchers before joining the study, which involved dietary and exercise instruction. The tummy-trimming benefits of a water preload can likely be chalked up to the fact that it expands the stomach, increasing feelings of fullness and making it easier to regulate food intake at mealtime.

Action point: Consider the extra bathroom breaks a minor inconvenience and start each meal with plain water or a mug of tea to encourage better portion control. Don’t forget that the benefits of drinking before meals accrue only if paired with an exercise program and a sound diet overall.

Count Your Bites

Counting daily steps is a tried-and-true way to encourage clients to walk farther to increase calorie burn and weight loss. Well, it turns out that to whittle the middle, people should also be adding up their daily food bites.

A 2015 watershed study from Brigham Young University encouraged volunteers to count bites of food taken each day for a week to obtain a baseline bite total. Afterward, subjects were instructed to reduce their total bites each day by 20%– 30% for the next 4 weeks without altering anything else in their diet or lifestyle (West et al. 2015). Those who completed the study lost on average a statistically significant 4 pounds of body weight. With Americans consuming more calories than past generations, keeping track of daily bites can be an easy way to eat mindfully and reduce consumption to levels more conducive to achieving healthier body weights.

Action point: Wearable devices that count your bites could be on the horizon, but in the meantime, try breaking out the pen and paper and keeping note of how many bites you take at meals and snacks. If you need to lose weight, work on reducing your daily bite count. Also make those bites work harder for you by slowing your pace. Research suggests that chewing more slowly can help keep calorie intake in check by giving us a better chance to sense fullness (Shah et al. 2014).

Eat More Beans

The United Nations is calling 2016 the International Year of Pulses—a food group that includes beans, lentils and peas. Pulses are more than an inexpensive source of nutrition: They can also help people get a legume up on weight loss.

Data shows that those who include more beans and other pulses in their regular diets have an easier time achieving and maintaining healthier body weights (McCrory et al. 2010; Tonstad, Malik & Haddad 2014). That’s because pulses are an excellent source of plant-based protein and dietary fiber, which can fill people up on fewer calories, encouraging fat loss in the long run (Turner et al. 2013). Unfortunately, the Standard American Diet (fittingly known as SAD) is seriously skimpy when it comes to pulses and hunger-fighting fiber in general.

Action point: For weight loss and overall better eating, work more beans, lentils or other pulses into your eating plan. This can be as easy as taking a lentil-based salad to the office for a workday lunch, replacing one meat-based dinner meal each week with a bean-heavy dish such as vegetarian chili, and relying on legume-based dips like hummus for healthier snacking.

Think Twice Before “Grazing”

Common dieting advice encourages us to eat more often during the day (an eating pattern called “grazing”) instead of getting all of our calories only at breakfast, lunch and dinner. It’s thought that frequent noshing prevents people from getting too hungry, which can spiral into overeating when mealtime rolls around. Indeed, America has become a nation of snackers, which is helping the sales of packaged snack foods soar.

Weight Loss Table

But eating more frequently could be hurting, not helping, with weight loss. A 2015 Journal of Nutrition study looking at more than 18,000 adults found that those who ate meals and snacks more frequently were also more likely to be overweight or obese (Murakami & Livingstone 2015). Further, a Journal of the American Dietetic Association study found that people who didn’t snack between breakfast and lunch lost about 4.5% more weight over a year than morning snackers (Kong et al. 2011).

It boils down to the reality that eating more frequently increases the likelihood of losing track of total food intake and taking in excess calories. Snacking can be fueled by habit and social norm rather than need (i.e., hunger). And even when hunger is present, frequent nibbling is not guaranteed to crush it. In a 2016 study by University of Washington scientists, people reported having a greater appetite when they ate on eight separate occasions per day over a 3-week period than they did when consuming the same number of calories in just three eating occasions per day (Perrigue et al. 2016).

Some say that eating more often revs up metabolism for increased calorie burn, but science has failed to demonstrate any measurable impact.

Action point: Don’t buy into the hype that frequently eating smaller meals is clutch for stimulating weight loss. For many people, eating less often can be just what they need to move the needle on the scale in the correct direction. Case in point: A study published in Cell Metabolism found that when overweight people scaled back their eating period during the course of a day to 11 hours or less from more than 14 hours, they experienced notable weight loss (Gill & Panda 2015).

It can be as easy as eating only when you are hungry, which can have other health benefits. Research published in the Journal of the Association for Consumer Research found that people who were moderately hungry before they ate a meal tended to have a lower blood glucose response to the food consumed&,dash;which can reduce risk for both diabetes and fat gain—than those who were not hungry prior to eating (Gal 2016).

Resist Clever Branding

Food manufacturers and their marketing teams are a savvy bunch and know how to get us to reach for their products more often. But paying more attention to how a food is advertised instead of its nutritional merits can lead people to let their guard down. In a Journal of Marketing Research study, subjects consumed more of a trail mix when its label included the word “fitness” than they did when the snack was simply labeled “trail mix” (Koenigstorfer & Baumgartner 2016). The researchers also found that fitness-branded food led people to exercise less vigorously, thus expending less overall energy. Both of these outcomes are contrary to weight loss and fitness boosting efforts.

Just the thought that you are eating a healthier food could lead you to overconsume and believe you need less exercise to offset it. A University of Texas investigation showed that when a food is portrayed as healthy, people tend to consume a greater portion of it, up to twice as much, than when the same item is sold as being less healthy (Suyer, Raghunathan & Hoyer 2016). Your brain may trick you into unconsciously feeling less full when you believe the food you are eating is good for you.

Action point: The next time hunger strikes, be careful not to fall prey to slick front-label claims. Be wary about energy bars, cereals and whole-grain cookies that are branded as healthy or say they are geared to the needs of exercisers. What’s most important is to base purchasing decisions on the ingredients used in foods and then consume them in reasonable portions instead of gorging with reckless abandon.

Lighten Up at Night

Most people eat their biggest meal at dinner, but research suggests that swinging the calorie balance to earlier in the day might be a better idea. Italian researchers who looked at the eating habits of more than 1,200 middle-aged adults discovered a substantially higher obesity risk for study participants who consumed half or more of their daily calories at dinner (Bo et al. 2014). Similarly, a study in the journal Obesity discovered that subjects who consumed more calories at breakfast at the expense of calories later in the day (700-calorie breakfast, 500-calorie lunch, 200-calorie dinner) had greater fat loss around their waistlines than those who took in substantially more calories at dinner than at breakfast (200-calorie breakfast, 500-calorie lunch, 700-calorie dinner) (Jakubowicz et al. 2013).

It could be that we burn more calories earlier in the day when our metabolisms are higher, while later intake is more likely to go into fat storage. Insulin sensitivity may also fall as the day progresses, so there is a greater chance that the carbohydrates consumed will get stored in fat.

Action point: People struggling to achieve and maintain a healthy body weight might best be advised to “eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, and dinner like a pauper.” A substantial breakfast can also promote early-day satiety and reduce the risk of mindless snacking and overeating as the day progresses. Instruct clients how to fill their breakfast routine with healthy calories such as whole grains and lean proteins, and then to scale back for subsequent meals.

Plan Ahead

Walking into a restaurant and ordering lunch on a whim might not be the best way to prevent the meal from widening the waistline. An investigation published in the journal Appetite found that when people could preorder their lunch online, they ended up selecting meals with 115 fewer calories and 5.4 fewer grams of fat, on average, than when they bought lunches in person (Stites et al. 2015).

What’s more, a 2015 Environment and Behavior study discovered that restaurant patrons are four times more likely to order dessert if served by a heavier member of the wait staff (Doering & Wansink 2015). How can using a smartphone to launch a preemptive strike on restaurant fare keep calorie intake in check? Selecting your order online instead of at the request of a live server reduces temptations like sensory cues (oh, that smell of freshly baked cinnamon rolls) or the chances of being upsold, so you’re less likely to say yes when asked if you “want fries with that” or to finish off a meal with molten lava cake.

Action point: While it’s almost always a better idea for people to prepare their own home-cooked meals, using online menus may reduce the risk of making unwise meal choices. Even if a restaurant does not allow items to be ordered in advance for pickup or delivery, most establishments have their menus posted on their websites, presenting the opportunity to take time and decide on the healthiest choice. Write down this choice and be sure to stick to your guns when you walk through the doors.

References

Bo, S., et al. 2014. Consuming more of daily caloric intake at dinner predisposes to obesity. A 6-year population-based prospective cohort study. PLOS One, 9(9), e108467.

Doering, T., & Wansink, B. 2015. The waiter’s weight: Does a server’s BMI relate to how much food diners order? Environment and Behavior, epub ahead of print. doi: 10.1177/0013916515621108.

Gal, D. 2016. Let hunger be your guide? Being hungry before a meal is associated with healthier levels of postmeal blood glucose. Journal of the Association for Consumer Research, 1(1), epub ahead of print.

Gill, S., & Panda, S. 2015. A smartphone app reveals erratic diurnal eating patterns in humans that can be modulated for health benefits. Cell Metabolism, 22(5), 789–98.

Jakubowicz, D., et al. 2013. High caloric intake at breakfast vs. dinner differentially influences weight loss of overweight and obese women. Obesity, 21(12), 2,504–12.

Koenigstorfer, J., & Baumgartner, H. 2016. The effect of fitness branding on restrained eaters’ food consumption and postconsumption physical activity. Journal of Marketing Research, 53(1), 124–38.

Kong, A., et al. 2011. Associations between snacking and weight loss and nutrient intake among postmenopausal overweight-to-obese women in a dietary weight-loss intervention. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 111(12), 1898–1903.

McCrory, M.A., et al. 2010. Pulse consumption, satiety, and weight management. Advances in Nutrition, 1(1), 17–30.

Murakami, K., &, Livingstone, M.B. 2015. Eating frequency is positively associated with overweight and central obesity in US adults. Journal of Nutrition, 145(12), 2,715–24.

Parretti, H.M., et al. 2015. Efficacy of water preloading before main meals as a strategy for weight loss in primary care patients with obesity: RCT. Obesity, 23(9), 1,785–91

Perrigue, M., et al. 2016. Higher eating frequency does not decrease appetite in healthy adults. Journal of Nutrition, 146 (1), 59–64.

Shah, M., et al. 2014. Slower eating speed lowers energy intake in normal-weight but not overweight/obese subjects. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 114(3), 393–402.

Stites, S.D., et al. 2015. Pre-ordering lunch at work. Results of the what to eat for lunch study. Appetite, 84, 88–97.

Suher, J., Raghunathan, R., & Hoyer, W. 2015. Eating healthy or feeling empty? How the “healthy = less filling” intuition influences satiety. Journal of the Association for Consumer Research, 1(1), epub ahead of print.

Tonstad, S., Malik, N., & Haddad, E. 2014. A high-fibre bean-rich diet versus a low-carbohydrate diet for obesity. Journal of Human Nutrition and Dietetics, 27(Suppl. 2), 109–16.

Turner, T.F., et al. 2013. Dietary adherence and satisfaction with a bean-based high-fiber weight loss diet: A pilot study. ISRN Obesity. doi: 10.1155/2013/915415.

West, J., et al. 2015. Pilot test of a bites-focused weight loss intervention. Advances in Obesity, Weight Management & Control, 3(1)

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About the Author

Matthew Kadey,  MS, RD

Matthew Kadey, MS, RD IDEA Author/Presenter

Matthew Kadey, MS, RD, is a James Beard Award-winning journalist, Canada-based dietitian, freelance nutrition writer and recipe developer. He has written for dozens of magazines including Runner’s World, Men’s Health, Shape, Vegetarian Times and Fitness.