Variety: Spice of Life or Route to Obesity?
Eating is not only about hunger, says Abramson.
"Attractive food is very hard to resist; it is not physical hunger, but physical hunger makes it worse, because then it is harder to regulate your food intake," he says. "Food also has rewarding properties to it, aside from the fact the taste is appealing: It has been paired over the years with rewards, with comfort, with nurturing, with all sorts of positive experiences. It is very hard to resist temptation when it is staring at you in the face."
But all is not lost. Abramson serves up several tips for surviving an encounter with a buffet table, a cruise ship smorgasbord, or a gleaming party spread.
"Clearly, when confronted with a wide range of attractive choices, that is high-risk situation," he says. "The first thing is, try to minimize those situations to begin with. Or if you are going out to eat, choose a restaurant that doesn't serve buffet style. If you are going to a party where there is a spread of food in front of you, minimize the amount of time you spend in the presence of the food, make a deliberate effort to move away."
"Likewise a little advance planning helps," he says. "If you know you are going to be confronted with a whole range choices, you may want to make a public pronouncement to your spouse that you are going to sample, say, just three different desserts, rather than go hog-wild with it."
Advance planning also includes eating less and lighter earlier in the day if you know, for example, that you will be confronted with a wide variety of choices later on that night.
"But you don't want to starve yourself because it is hard to exert any control over your eating then," he warns.
As for limiting variety in general, Abramson doesn't think that is realistic. "I don't know too many people who just eat one item," he says. "My guess is that outside of the lab settings the only people who are doing this are following some fad diet [like] grapefruit, cabbage soup, etc. Otherwise, I find it unlikely that people would eat that kind of a diet."
But Raynor says it is not all about limiting all foods, all the time.
"Another study has found, interestingly, that as the prevalence of obesity has risen in our country so has the variety in our food supply -- specifically snack, junk, and convenience foods," she says.
"To help with energy regulation, people should probably limit the variety in their diet -- specifically foods that are high in [calories] like junk food or snack foods. Obviously a person needs enough variety in their diet to get enough essential vitamins and minerals. But instead of having potato chips, cookies, ice cream, and candy in their house, they really only should have one. You don't need to have an overwhelming variety; that will help with energy regulation."