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Habituating to Challenging Foods

  • Eating

Here’s an interesting headline—“Food habituation may help weight loss”—from a nutrition newsletter summarizing results of a study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (8/11). The results support what intuitive eating professionals have been advising for decades: habituating to a food can help you avoid overeating it.

The summary in Environmental Nutrition (10/11) says: “The effects of food habituation—a form of learning in which repeated exposure leads to decreased response—was investigated in a study of 16 obese and 16 non-obese women, who were randomly assigned to receive a macaroni and cheese meal five times, either daily for one week or once a week for five weeks. In both obese and non-obese women, daily presentation of the food resulted in faster habituation and less calorie intake than did once-weekly presentation of the food. This study supports the theory that the habitual presentation of a small variety—compared with a wide variety—of calorie-dense foods results in lower calorie intake.”

This study reinforces the concept that when food is familiar and not off limits, we get used to knowing it’ll be there today and tomorrow and don’t overeat it--the women who received macaroni and cheese daily (enough to get sick of it!), ate less of it, but those served it only once a week, consumed more of it. That means that we can and do need to keep food around and believe we can say yes to it in order to say no to it. The study also tells us that it’s best to habituate to one food or dish at a time. Don’t bring in all your challenging foods at once; pick one and, when you’re habituated, bring in another.

I know many of you have tried to ditch the forbidden food mentality and incorporate challenging foods into your every day life--and failed. I hear it all the time: “I can’t keep X in the house,” “I just keep eating it if it’s there,” “That approach may work for some people, but not me,” “I’m eating all this junk and don’t want to continue to gain weight.” Over 30 years ago, I went through this process myself of slowly introducing formerly forbidden foods into my diet. It was scary and I did overeat a lot (I mean a whole, helluva lot), but I stuck with it (in spite of fear and weight gain), and came out the other side. So have many others. The problem for most of you stems from wanting rapid results (won’t happen), becoming frightened that the process isn’t working (feel the fear and do it anyway), and freaking out over initial weight gain (the weight gain will stop when you habituate). If you want to change, you have to do what those who’ve succeeded have done: stick with the process until it works!