Two words can lead you to overeat a snack you don’t even really like.
Those two words would be “low fat.”
We’re living in a world of fat-free, carb-free and sugar-free snacks. Most of the time, if we think they are at least low fat, we think “it must be good for us” —even if the snack is loaded with sugar.
When Nabisco came out with SnackWell’s, a line of no-fat and low-fat cookies and crackers, they flew off of shelves, gobbled up by the people who believed they could eat them until they magically whittled down into a supermodel. Six months later and about 6 pounds heavier, the low-fat fanatics finally realized that these cookies had about only 30 percent fewer calories than regular cookies.
This happens all the time. Often the fat-free version is not much lower in calories than the regular version. For example, each low-fat Oreo cookie has 50 calories. The regular version has just over three calories more.Low-fat labels can lead us to mindlessly overeat a product with guilt-free abandon.
Take granola. Where low-fat granola is indeed lower in fat, it is only about 12 percent lower in calories. It does not take a lot of mindless munching to scarf down an extra 12 percent of granola, especially while thinking you are doing your body good.
In one study, a French colleague, Pierre Chandon, and I invited people to watch some commercials and a video episode of the “Dukes of Hazzard.” We gave them bags of granola that were labeled as either “Low-fat Rocky Mountain Granola” or “Regular Rocky Mountain Granola,” as we described in the Journal of Marketing Research. In reality, all of the granola was low fat. While people watched the video, they ate the granola. Those given what was labeled as low-fat granola kept munching long after the other group stopped. After the movie, we weighed the remaining granola to see how much had disappeared. It turned out that those eating what they thought was low-fat granola ate 35 percent more, which translated into 192 more calories. When we offered them low-fat chocolate, they loaded up on 23 percent more calories.
The low-fat label tricked people into eating more than if the product had a regular label.
The cruel twist is that these labels can have an even more dramatic impact on those who are overweight. People who are overweight and eat more than their thinner peers are in danger of really over-indulging when they see something with a low-fat label. The problem is that when we are looking for an excuse to eat something, low-fat labels give it to us.What’s worse than overeating a snack?Overeating one we don’t even really like that much. Few low-fat snacks are nearly as tasty as their regular version.So rather than overeating something you don’t even really like, enjoy the regular version —but only half as much of it.
If your New Year resolutions to eat better didn't work out as planned. Here's Plan B. Trick yourself into eating better.
You can easily set up your kitchen (and some habits) that lead to eat better or less. But since you will know what’s going on, you won’t have to feel tricked.
A while back "Trick Yourself into Eating Better was the title Quartz used for a catchy story on some of our research. It’s about 3 minutes long and has a lot of eye-opening tips and insights. They interviewed one of my post-doctoral fellows, Aner Tal. What’s unusual is how Aner describes why these work in a suave James Bond style and how Quartz cleverly illustrates them. Too cool for school.
Here’s some of what they mentioned:
1. Use lighter plates
2. Use smaller plates
3. Cut your food into pieces
4. Don’t watch TV when you eat
5. No scary movies
6. Don’t shop when you’re hungry (you don't buy more, you buy worse)
7. Deprivation always backfires
Some of these might sound pretty basic, but it’s Aner's description of how they work and Quartz's funny illustrations that really make them pop.
Aner flew out to visit me from Israel a while back, and we were talking about how people react after they hear about some of these discoveries.
Some people hear about suggestions like these and say to themselves “That would never happen to me,” so they don’t try to do anything different, and nothing changes in their life. Other people say to themselves, “Yeah, that makes sense” but they never do it, so, again, nothing changes in their life.
No one is going to hear about 7 discoveries and make 7 changes in their life. It’s too much. But you can make 1 or 2 of them. After they become habits, you can always come back to the table for another course.
No one goes to bed skinny and wakes up fat. Most people gain (or lose) weight so gradually they cannot really figure out how it happened. They do not remember changing their eating or exercise patterns. All they remember is once being able to fit into their favorite pants without having to hold their breathe and hope they can get the zipper to budge.
Sure, there are exceptions. If we gorge ourselves at the all-you-can-eat pizza buffet, then clean out the chip bowl at the Superbowl party, then stop by the Baskin-Robbins drive-through for a “Belly Buster” Sundae on the way home, we realize we have gone too far over the top. But on most days we have very little idea whether we have eaten 50 calories too much or 50 calories too little. In fact, most of us would not know if we ate 200 or 300 calories more or less than the day before.
This is the Mindless Margin. It is the margin or the zone in which we can either slightly overeat or slightly undereat without being aware of it. Suppose you can eat 2000 calories a day without either gaining or losing weight. If one day, however, you only ate 1000 calories, you would know it. You would feel weak, light-headed, cranky, and you would snap at the dog. On the other hand you would also know it if you ate 3000 calories. You would feel a little heavier, slower, and more like flopping on the couch and petting the cat.
If we eat way too little, we know it. If we eat way too much, we know it. But there is a calorie range – a Mindless Margin– where we feel fine and are unaware of small differences. That is, the difference between 1900 calories and 2000 calories is one we cannot detect, nor can we detect the difference between 2000 and 2100 calories. But over the course of a year, this mindless margin would either cause us to lose ten pounds or to gain ten pounds. It takes 3500 extra calories to equal one pound. It does not matter if we eat these extra 3500 calories in one week or gradually over the entire year. They will all add up to one pound.
This is the danger of creeping calories. Just 10 extra calories a day – 1 stick of Double-mint gum or 3 small Jelly Belly jelly beans – will make you a pound more portly one year from today. Only three Jelly Bellies a day.
Fortunately, the same thing happens in the opposite direction.
One colleague of mine, Stacy, had lost around 25 pounds during her first two years at a new job. When I asked how she lost the weight, she could not really answer. After some persistent questioning, it seemed that the only deliberate change she had made two years earlier was to give up caffeine. She switched from coffee to herbal tea. That did not seem to explain anything.
“Oh, yeah,” she said, “And because I gave up caffeine, I also stopped drinking Coke.” She had been drinking about six cans a week – far from a serious habit – but the 139 calories in each Coke translated into 14 pounds a year. When she quit, she was not even aware of why she had lost weight. In her mind all she had done was cut out caffeine.
Herein lies the secret of the Mindless Margin. This Mindless Margin is that small range where we make slight changes to our routine that we hardly notice. Nevertheless, these changes can have a gradual – but eventually big – impact on our weight. They can make the difference between being 10 pounds heavier next New Years Day or 10 pounds lighter.
Cutting out our favorite foods is a bad idea. Cutting down on how much we eat is mindlessly doable. Many fad diets focus more on the typesof foods we can eat rather than how much we should eat. The problem is not that we order beef instead of a low-fat chicken breast. The problem is that the beef is often twice the size. A low-fat chicken breast that we resent having to eat is no better for our long-term diet than a tastier but slightly smaller piece of beef.
If we are looking at only a 100 or 200 calories difference a day, these are not calories we will miss. We can trim them out of our day relatively easy – and unknowingly. The key is to do it unknowingly – mindlessly. It is so much easier to rearrange your kitchen and change a few eating habits so you do not have to think about eating less or differently. This is the silver lining to this dark, cloudy sky. The same things that lead us to mindlessly gain weight can also help us mindlessly lose weight.
Here are some tips, tricks, and secrets on how you and your family can be healthier and happier. They're based on over 30 years of our published research.
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