Eggrolls and tummy bulge. Those were the concerns of Cornell University researches in a study released last year in the journal Obesity, but the research–and the discussion about it–may have fallen short.
The study tracked the habits of people with various body mass indexes (BMIs) at a Chinese buffet, and found several differences in the actions of people with high and low BMIs. All good and helpful, I say.
Then this week, David Zinczenko, co-author of the hit Eat This, Not That! book series, turned the findings into a guide to the habits of people who qualified as obese versus their daintier lo mein-slurping counterparts. The top two Zinczenko singles out:
- They use larger plates. When offered two plate sizes, 98.6 percent of those with the highest BMIs took the larger of the two plates to the buffet. A bigger plate tricks your eye into thinking you’re not eating as much, and stuffing more food onto your plate — and into your mouth. Use a smaller plate, get a smaller belly.
- They eat while looking at food. 41.7 percent of those with high BMIs took seats that overlooked the buffet, instead of sitting in a booth or facing in a different direction. The site of food tends to make our minds think we have more work to do, eating-wise. Keep your food stored in the fridge or the pantry, not out on the countertops.
- They chew faster. Researchers actually monitored the chewing habits of the buffet-goers and discovered that the heaviest 1/3 among them chewed their food an average of 11.9 times before swallowing. The middle 1/3 chewed an average of 14 times, and the leanest 1/3 chewed 14.8 times.
- They dive in. The leanest people in the study typically took a lap around the buffet first, to plot out what they wanted to eat. But the more overweight group charged right in; doing so means you may fill up on some less-appealing items, then have to go back to snag that one nosh you have to have, but missed the first time.
I appreciate this clinical yet highly accessible breakdown. It provides us some “tips” to live by. I’m just not sure if tidbits like this will help. (Though perhaps I would have better results and get a better picture if I waded through the four volumes in Zinczenko’s series).
How about the researchers? Their discussion section cheerfully assures us that “these findings, in tandem with laboratory findings… reinforce that small changes in one’s environment may lessen one’s tendency to overeat.”
Drastic weight loss thanks to a few tiny tweaks? I just don’t know. I would argue, and others like Michael Pollan, author of In Defense of Food: An Eaters Manifesto, have said, is that changing our health through food takes more. It’s not just a matter of following seven tips or changing where you eat. Real change, and real health, take lifestyle and paradigm shifts.
For instance, instead of turning our chairs away from the chafing dishes, perhaps we could make sure we have more interesting things to look at. The faces of loved ones might be a good place to start. Eating with people we care about and want to chat with as we dine can do wonders to our psyches as well as our waistlines.
Instead of counting how many times we chew, perhaps we could focus on the calculus of flavor. Local, seasonal foods made from scratch can taste really good, and make us want to savor each bite. Before we know it, we’re chewing more slowly and thoroughly. If someone we know has labored to create a one-of-a-kind dish–either growing the ingredients, or cooking them, or both–we’re going to have more reverence for it than we would for one mass-produced wanton in a mountain of wantons.
Those are just some ideas, and all but new ones. I just had to put in my say on the latest contribution to the get-healthy-in-five-easy-steps world of food advice.
We will undoubtedly see more of these quick tips and tricks, broken down into Twitter-sized bites, before any food revolution comes. However, I think that if we start thinking about eating as communities, and nourishing those communities with truly wholesome food, we won’t need those tips. And then we can feel good about cleaning our plates.
Photo: Table settings at a restaurant in Shanghai, China. By the author.