Spring is upon us and with it thoughts of shorts — and swimsuits. If you feel unprepared for baring some skin, you’re not alone. Two out of three American adults are now overweight or obese, and the health effects are grim. And the typical prescriptions for losing weight aren’t much cheerier: eat less, exercise more, read labels, and the like. They’re all good advice, but they don’t inspire anyone because they sound like drudgery.
But what if you could trick yourself into losing weight? That’s a practical joke we’d all like to play on ourselves.
By and large, we gain weight because we take in more calories than we burn. Unfortunately, eating more than we need to maintain a healthy weight has become too easy. Bigger is better these days; plates, portions, and packages are all heftier than they were even a decade ago. For the most part, we’re not aware that we’re consuming many more calories, so we eat up, clean the plate, empty the package, and pile on the pounds.
We may not be much better off if we cook at home.
Current editions of cookbooks contain recipes with larger servings and more calories than those published in the past, notes Brian Wansink, director of Cornell University’s Food and Brand Lab in Ithaca, N.Y. and author of Mindless Eating. In the beloved standby, The Joy of Cooking, for example, “Calorie counts for recipes that were common in all the editions have ballooned by 44 percent per recipe from 1937 to 2006,” he says.
“So even before you serve the dish, cut it in half and put half in the freezer,” Wansink advises. “Then, serve all your food from the countertop or stovetop. People can still go back for seconds or thirds but they have to think twice. This leads them to eat about 30 percent less over the course of a long dinner.”
To save even more calories, set out tall, slender glasses for soda, juice, or alcohol and use your short, squat tumblers for water. We tend to pour more liquid into tumblers than into tall glasses that hold the same amount.
Calories consumed in liquids such as sugared sodas, juices, and lemonade have another drawback: We don’t compensate for them by doing without the same number of calories of solid food. “Liquid calories slip under the body-weight regulating system,” says Harvard University endocrinologist David Ludwig, M.D., director of the Optimal Weight for Life clinic at Children’s Hospital in Boston.
In an effort to save calories, many people switch from sugar-laden soft drinks to artificially sweetened ones. It’s a tactic that may not pay off. One study revealed an association between drinking artificially sweetened beverages and weight gain, and raised the question of whether these drinks might be fueling rather than fighting the obesity epidemic. It didn’t explain why this happened, and it may have been that men and women who were gaining weight switched to diet drinks.