Starting Small

August 10, 2012 in Exercise, Health, Weight Management by Mary Ireland

I am amazed how little things can make a big difference. Research from Arizona State University is a great example of this. Researchers found that subjects who ate energy-dense food in smaller bites felt full faster and ate less food overall. The research was conducted both on lab rats and college students with similar results.

Energy-dense foods typically contain significant amounts of fat and/or sugar with relatively little fiber. Reducing the amount of energy-dense foods eaten is helpful if you are trying to lose excess weight or maintain your present weight. The challenge is that these energy dense foods usually taste really good, making it easier to over-indulge in eating them.

In the experiment, researchers first gave lab rats a reward for running through a maze. The animals were divided into two groups: one group was given a single chunk of food for the completing the maze; the other group giving 30 small pieces of food weighing the same as the large piece. Surprisingly to me, the rats preferred -- and worked harder for -- the same amount of food served in smaller pieces.

The researchers then applied the same test to college students. Half of the 300 students participating in the experiment were offered a whole bagel covered with cream cheese. The other group was offered the same kind of bagel, cut into four pieces and covered with the same amount of cream cheese. Twenty minutes after eating the bagel, each student was offered a free meal. The group that ate the bagel in smaller pieces ate less of the free meal.

The researchers speculate that "Perhaps cutting up foods into multiple, bite-sized pieces may perceptually look like more and therefore elicit greater satiation than a single-piece food portion." To me this is an example of how you can work in the "Mindless Margin" to -- dare I say effortlessly -- reduce the amount of calories that you consume. The ironic thing is, to use the mindless margin to your advantage, you must be mindful to set up your environment so that it works for you instead of against you.

A few weeks ago, in my blog post Looking at Energy Balance, I talked about studies conducted at Utrecht University using "goal primes" or subtle reminders to weight-conscious people of their weight related goals. A similar experiment was reported in the American Journal of Health Promotion. The experiment observed the impact of messages on approximately 82,000 pedestrians over a 6-week period in a shopping mall in England. The messages “Take the Stairs” and “7 Minutes of Stair Climbing Daily Protects Your Heart” -- were posted at two staircases and a pair of escalators. The messages increased stair climbing by 190% on the staircases the message were posted at. Stair climbing on a nearby staircase -- one with no messages -- increased by 52%.

Researchers are concerned that the increase in taking the stairs will only be short-term and that mall goers may return to using the escalators once the novelty of the messages wears off. This is an important point to remember if you are using goal primes to influence your own behavior. You should use your creativity to change your goal prime messages from time to time. You can also benefit by observing what type of messages are the most effective for you and create variations of those messages.

Creating and posting goal primes for yourself and cutting your food up into smaller bites are really easy things to do. They don't cost anything (or hardly anything) to do and yet these experiments have shown, they can be highly effective. Dr. Grandma's recipes are an easy and tasty way to incorporate healthy foods into your diet. Dr. Grandma also has great tips that will help you stay on your healthy food plan. Explore our website and learn more about healthy living - the Mediterranean way.