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Variety: Spice of Life or Route to Obesity?

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The importance of the non-nutritive values of eating should not be underestimated, says Abramson, who was not involved in the study.

"Eating serves a variety of functions. Obviously the nutritive is basic, but above and beyond that, when you think of all the different functions that food serves, it is easy to see why people gain weight," he says. "We socialize around food, we reward ourselves and each other -- especially children -- with food, we use food sometimes to cope with stressors or unpleasant emotional states, we use food to celebrate, and mealtimes are markers in our days. So we have certain expectations."

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."

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