Variety: Not always the spice of life (or health)

One of the topics we’ve been covering in my Nutrition & Metabolism class is age-related changes to metabolic rate, body composition and energy needs. As part of that, we’ve looked at some of the research regarding our ability to regulate a healthy energy balance as we get older. In other words, how well do we eat the amount of food we need to match the amount of energy our body needs so we don’t unintentionally gain or lose weight?
Not very well at all, it seems. With older adults, unintended weight loss is more likely to be an issue than weight gain, and there are many reasons for that. One reason is variety. Older adults tend to have less variety in their diets, and when we have less variety, we tend to eat less. There are many related reasons for this that are still being explored (including declining sense of taste and smell), but what was interesting was the comparison information about what happens when children, adolescents and adults have a lot of variety in their diets.
If you have a “varied diet,” but that variety comes from high-calorie foods (like desserts, snack foods, high-fat entrees, etc.), odds are you’re going to eat too much and gain weight. Why? Because of “sensory specific satiety.” That term refers to our tendency to experience less pleasure with each subsequent bite we take of a food. You know how the first bite always tastes the best, and the second bite is still really good, but not as good (and so on, and so on)? Well, if you are eating lots of different things, it’s easier to overeat because when sensory specific satiety kicks in for one food, you have another food and another flavor with which to start the process over. And then another and another. It’s the “I’m stuffed but I can make room for dessert” phenomenon.
“But isn’t a varied diet good?” you ask. Well…it is if you’re getting that variety from vegetables! People who get a lot of variety in their diets by eating lots of vegetables are less likely to be overweight.
The takeaway? Eat your veggies (allow the photo above to inspire you). And, if you’re struggling to lose weight or avoid gaining weight, you might look at what’s on your plate. If you tend to have multiple side dishes, perhaps with condiments adding another round of flavors, you might consider scaling back a bit and see if that helps you control your overall food intake. Oh, and stay away from buffets.