Fri, Jun 04, 2004 - Page 9 News List

Variety is not the spice of life, obesity-busters warn


Ed Glomb admits he gets a little carried away when faced with the more than 150 all-you-can-eat options on the Red Apple Buffet's Italian-American-Chinese-Japanese menu.

"Everybody has a tendency to eat with their eyes," he said recently, adding that he'd already eaten soup, shrimp and crab legs -- starters to be followed by roast beef, potatoes and dessert. "It's a little bit of this and a little bit of that."

But Glomb's tendency to pile it on at his favorite restaurant -- and his rotund size -- may have as much to do with the number of choices on the buffet table as the unlimited portions being offered.

Call it the "salad bar effect." Studies suggest that variety increases consumption. With monotonous meals, people eat until they are full. Add variety, even something as subtle as different shapes of pasta, and they eat more.

Studies dating back to the 1960s have shown that variety can increase calorie consumption an average of 25 percent, according to Megan McCrory, a nutritionist at Tufts University.

That has some researchers grappling with the global obesity epidemic considering what role an often dizzying array of food choices might play in expanding the collective waistline.

"Nutritionists have been wrong. We've been telling you for years variety is important, but it's that variety that really helps to make you fat," said Judith Stern, vice president of the American Obesity Association.

stuffed to the brim

The science may not be familiar to most people, but its effects probably are. It plays out "in restaurants when you're really stuffed to the brim and you just can't have another bite," McCrory said. "Then the waiter brings around the dessert cart. ... There's always room for dessert."

Blame it on so-called sensory-specific satiety, a mental process that makes food taste better at first but progressively less interesting as a person continues to eat it. Switch to a new food and, even if the person is full, it will be appealing.

Marketers know this. Coca-Cola sells nearly 400 different drinks, Frito-Lay offers about 150 different chips and pretzels in the US alone, and Campbell's produces 170 soups.

"If all you have is chicken soup, you probably won't eat soup night after night," said John Faulkner, a Campbell Soup spokesman. "But the more varieties you have, the more of it you'll eat."

Barbara Rolls, a nutrition professor at Penn State University, said this dietary trigger dates back to humanity's early days, when survival was best served by a natural inclination to eat a variety of foods.

"It encourages you to switch from food to food," she said. "As omnivores with a variety of nutrient requirements, we need to switch from food to food and take in a lot of different nutrients. This is actually an adaptive response."

Most researchers agree on the science behind sensory-specific satiety. Where they differ is on how it affects overall eating patterns and how significantly it contributes to obesity.

Rolls and McCrory, two of the leading researchers in the field, think it has a powerful effect.

"There's so much variety that especially when the variety tastes really good we're more apt to go ahead and eat it, especially when it's everywhere you turn," McCrory said.

The problem isn't just that people seek variety, but also that the foods they are eating are high in calories, Rolls said. People learn as children to prefer high-calorie foods because they satisfy cravings quickly.

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