How Much Food Variety is Best for Starting Weight Loss?

varietyVariety is the spice of life. It means we should try many different kinds of experiences, because trying different things keeps life interesting. Does this cliche hold true for food during the starting phase of weight loss?

We live in an obesogenic (obesity promoting) environment that produces passive overeating and physical inactivity. The environmental conditions are complex but one piece of the puzzle researchers are looking at is dietary variety. The variety of high-calorie, low-nutrient foods has definitely increased over the past few decades. Over these same decades obesity has risen in parallel.

Research consistently demonstrates that greater dietary variety is found to increase consumption, weight, and body fat. People consuming a diet with greater variety of foods, flavors and textures tend to consume more calories.

We are hedonistic creatures. That is, we are biologically hard wired to seek pleasure and avoid pain. With increased variety our hedonic ratings of food goes up. It’s one of the reasons food manufacturers no longer provide us only with the simple potato chip. Now we have access to “Kettle Cooked Reduced Fat Applewood Smoked BBQ Flavored” chips. Food producers are well aware that increased, hyperpalatable sensations typically mean we’ll eat more of it and derive more pleasure from it. This, in turn, means we’ll repeat purchase and their profits will be increased.

If increasing food variety correlates with increased consumption, weight and body fat does the opposite hold true? If we decrease food variety does consumption, weight and body fat decrease? Yes. It mostly, again, has to do with hedonics and something called habituation. That is to say the more habitual and repeated it is the less pleasurable (hedonic) we find it. If you think about the last pound bag of M&Ms you mowed down (or whatever your secret junk-food pleasure is) it tasted really good for the first quarter pound but after that it was just mindless, zoned-out chewing and swallowing. We find it less pleasurable the more we do something over and over.

Another benefit for limiting variety is the aspect of simplicity. For anyone starting a new weight-loss regimen the last thing you want are confusing barriers like deciding which of 20 different protein sources, 100 different vegetables, 100 different fruits and 20 thousand different packaged products you should eat and in what combination. By limiting variety you have fewer choices to make. Your grocery lists and runs are much easier to manage too. Early on in weight loss the fewer decisions you have to make about what foods to eat and in what combination the better.

Overall it sounds simple enough. Reduce variety and it’ll be less confusing and you’ll eat less. But what about ensuring adequate intake of all the required macro- (i.e., carbs, proteins, fats) and micro-nutrients (i.e., vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, phytochemicals)? If you reduce your variety too much you run the risk of falling short on nutrients, compromising health and slowing weight loss.

In order to capitalize on the benefits of limited variety while maximizing nutrient intake I recommend the following model for those starting their weight-loss plan:

  • Start with 1-2 breakfasts, 2-3 lunches, 4-5 dinners and 1-2 snacks.
  • Choose real food (i.e., single ingredient or only ingredients your Grandmother had in her kitchen).
  • Choose three different protein sources, three different vegetables and three different fruits.
  • Keep meal preparation simple. Get your flavors from fresh foods, spices and healthy fats–not packaged chemicals
  • Take a multi-vitamin/mineral and fish-oil supplement daily.
  • Every 30 days change one breakfast, one lunch, one dinner and one snack to something new.
  • Every 30 days swap out a protein, vegetable or fruit for something new to prevent boredom.

In conclusion, we need some variety to derive adequate pleasure and to sustain healthy, daily behaviors. We also need some variety to ensure adequate macro- and mincronutrient consumption. With too much variety, however, meal planning is more difficult and confusing and we may be more likely to overeat as our pleasure centers fire longer or more frequently nudging us to continue eating.

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