Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Mental Calorie Budget

How do you control how much you eat in a world of relatively cheap food that’s easy to buy anytime of the day? You might be one of the rare folk who eat well until hunger departs, allowing your appetite to keep your weight healthy. Well done you. Most people today look at food and go through the “should I or should I not?” mental routine. Should I choose dessert or not? Have I deserved a treat? It’s a common self-justifying system employed by many.

Putting on the calorie brakes

Does giving yourself a Mental Calorie Budget (MCB) help you to control your eating when surrounded by abundant food? In theory, yes, according to research done by scientists in the US and France. They convinced one group of adults to keep a MCB on the amount of treats they would consume when offered plenty of treat opportunities over a day. As they were offered treats, they had the option to accept or reject each one.

If they had a MCB they ate much fewer treats than the control group who were not asked to have a MCB. Well it worked when done as an online exercise and only if the MCB was specific, such as “I won’t eat any treat over 100 Calories (420 kJ)”, not, for example, “I’ll try and avoid high calorie treats”.

The power of the outside voice

So, would the theory work in real life too? Let’s face it, it is easy to reject a treat that you just get to see on the computer screen. It’s a whole different story if the treat is edible and within reach. The researchers found that the MCB worked well in real life too. What was interesting was that when limits were made by an external voice (such as by a health professional) they were more effective that an internally voiced limit as you might tell yourself. This reinforces the potential benefits of advice from your doctor or dietitian. Well, for a short while at least.

Frequently stated message

If you know that you have a weakness for chocolate, biscuits or anything ending in –ccino then setting a MCB each morning as you clean your teeth may be a helpful way of restricting those foods or drinks. I suspect the message to self would have to be made every day as I can’t see a Monday message getting you through to the weekend. And, to be honest, it will only have a limited effect if you are trying to lose weight. You will need to employ other mind games (eat slowly, not buying treats in the first place etc) for the MCB to be helpful. Just remember that chocolate biscuits only have the power you give them in the first place.

What does it all mean?

When food was scarce or unpredictable, as it has been for most of human evolution, the choice was simple: eat or starve. It is no surprise that we haven’t adapted well to having an abundance of food choices close at hand. It is so easy to eat “just one more” to be sociable or get another squeeze of endorphins running around the brain sending off “oooh, yummy” feelings.

One useful message you could implant in your brain each morning is the MCB. “Yes, today I shall have only one hot chocolate (or one biscuit or one beer)”, or even telling yourself that you will eat two pieces of fresh fruit that day. A message to your brain on arising each morning could be a neat way to help control your shapeliness.

Reference: Journal of Consumer Research 2010; 37 (doi: 10.1086/6496.50)