Don’t Be a Diet Hero
By Charles Stuart Platkin
It might sometimes seem like the world is conspiring to keep you from losing weight. You can’t control
the portion sizes at your local restaurant, or the fact that it’s difficult to understand the food label or that
manufacturers put excessive amounts of sugar, fat or both in the foods you love. But believe it or not, you can take
charge -- no, not by lobbying your congressperson to end supersizing -- but by looking at the things you can control,
namely, your “personal food environment.”
Michael R. Lowe, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Drexel University, found that creating and monitoring your
“personal food environment” is the most effective strategy for keeping the weight off. “You need to limit your
exposure to high-calorie foods in your immediate environment by, for instance, choosing healthier restaurants and
stocking your home with quality ingredients and foods,” Lowe suggests. Other recommendations include using sugar
and fat substitutes and eating more lean protein and fiber-rich foods to increase satiety (feeling gratified beyond the
point of satisfaction).
The problem is that we don’t like to admit we’re not in complete control of our actions. We like to believe in that
ever-elusive self-discipline, even if it’s failed us again and again. Does giving up on willpower mean giving up
control? Is changing your food environment tantamount to admitting that those nacho chips control you more than
you control them?
“The process of controlling your weight is not about the commitment you have at the beginning of a new diet. It’s
about arranging your environment to maximize your chances of losing and maintaining weight, and minimizing your
chances of slipping up,” explains Lowe.
In other words, there’s a lot of truth in the old saying, “If you’re trying to lose weight, don’t work in a
bakery.” Here are a few tips for controlling your environment so it doesn’t control you.
DON’T BE A DIET HERO
“Don’t rely on your willpower,” says Lowe. When it comes to losing or maintaining your weight, there’s no
point in asking for trouble. Avoid cues that tempt you. If you drive by Dunkin’ Donuts on the way to work and you can’t
resist stopping for a box of donuts, change your route. Don’t head to the supermarket when you’re starving -- eat a
But most of all, don’t leave foods in the house that are going to “set you off.” Ask your family for their
cooperation -- even if they are at healthy weights, they still don’t benefit from eating high-calorie snacks. Believe it or not, kids
don’t NEED ice cream or junk food to survive. You’re better off taking them on an occasional trip to the ice cream
store (where you can get controlled portions) than keeping gallons of it in your freezer. Or go to the supermarket or
convenience store if you really NEED those potato chips.
If, for some reason, you need to keep high-calorie treats at home, where you store them can make a big difference.
Brian Wansink at the Food and Brand Lab at the University of Illinois gave one group of office workers bowls filled
with 30 Hershey’s Kisses to put right on their desks. He gave bowls to a second group to put about six feet away
from their desks -- only three steps. What happened? The workers with the bowls right on their desks ate about nine
chocolates per day, but when the bowls were six feet away, the workers only had four.
So, store your “junk” foods somewhere far, far away -- like in the basement or garage.
Also, when it comes to meals at home, as soon as you finish cooking, put the leftover food in the fridge; don’t leave
it on the stove, and definitely don’t bring it to the table.
Studies have shown that we’re satisfied as long as the foods we eat are the “right” volume -- meaning the same
size as what we would normally eat. So try finding and stocking your house with foods that are low-density, that is,
foods you can eat a lot of but won’t cost you a lot of calories (e.g., air-popped popcorn). In fact, Barbara Rolls,
Ph.D., professor of nutrition at Pennsylvania State University, wrote an entire book on this subject -- “Volumetrics:
Feel Full on Fewer Calories” (HarperCollins, 2000).
For instance, if you use lean beef to make your hamburgers instead of regular ground beef, you’ll still have the same
size burger, but you will get more calories from protein and fewer from fat. The total calorie content will also be
lower, even though the size of the burger stays the same. Another option is to take the regular ground beef and mix
mushrooms, peppers and onions in the patty before you cook it; again, you will have the same size burger, but it
will be much lower in calories, and you’ll get the health benefits of the vegetables.
DON’T BULK UP?
Researchers at the Food and Brand Lab also found that if you have bigger bags or boxes of anything, you pour larger
amounts. So, stay away from huge boxes of cereal, pasta and large bottles of soda. Buy food packages that are
portion-controlled instead of relying on your good judgment.
DISH IT OUT
According to a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, the portion sizes of many foods
served in the home (including bread, cereal, cookies, pasta, soft drinks and beer) have increased by as much as 16
percent. What can you do to avoid packing on the pounds?
Experts have demonstrated that the smaller your plates, cups or bowls, the less food you are likely to consume.
Measure how much your dishware can hold so you’ll have an idea of your portion sizes without having to think about
it too much.
And glassware makes a difference, too. An article published in the Journal of Consumer Research indicates that
people pour as much as 76 percent more liquid into a short, wide glass than into a tall, narrow one. If you keep your
glasses tall and narrow, you’ll drink less.
According to the scientific journal Health Education Behavior, the most common environmental barriers to physical
activity include safety, lack of availability and cost of parks, beaches, recreation centers, pools and fitness centers.
Do a quick audit of your hometown to increase your physical activity. Does your neighborhood have public or private
recreation facilities (swimming pools, parks, walking trails, bike paths, etc.)? Safe sidewalks? Are they in good
condition? Can you see yourself using them?
Charles Stuart Platkin is a syndicated health, nutrition, and fitness columnist, author of the best-selling book, Breaking the
Pattern (Red Mill Press, 2002), and founder of Nutricise.com. Copyright 2003 by Charles Stuart Platkin.