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An emerging body of research is suggesting that we can make some small changes that strongly influence us to eat less.
A review was recently published by the Cochrane group, looking at 72 randomized controlled trials (RCTs) that were published through mid-2013. The research looks solid and offers some great advice on how to reduce portion sizes and overall food consumption.
First, I’ll review the findings and advice. Then, at the end of this article, I’ll tell you why this is problematic. Yes, solid research with great advice can still be problematic.
According to the review, people consistently ate more food when they were offered larger portion sizes, larger packaged portions, or larger tableware. They characterize the difference in consumption as small to moderate, but significant nonetheless at a caloric increase of 12% to 16%.
Here’s a little experiment conducted some years ago by Dr. James Painter & CBS News. It doesn’t seem at all far-fetched, and I’d be willing to bet these results would be repeated a majority of the time.
Not all that surprising, right?
Yet, look at what’s happened to portion sizes in the UK, since the 1950s:
And here’s a good picture of what’s been happening since the 90s:
Many suggestions have been aimed at industry to help get portion sizes under control. Unfortunately, they tend to run against the interests of the businesses themselves and would likely result in decreased revenues. For example, convenience stores lure in customers with gallon-sized cups of cheap, carbonated sugar-water, because those customers will purchase additional items, like snacks and gas, thereby increasing sales. Selling more for less is a tried and true business competition strategy.
As usual, change and experimentation at the personal level has far fewer barriers and dependencies.
What can we do ourselves to help reduce our portion sizes?
The best suggestions are to replace tableware with smaller plates, cups, glasses, and cutlery. Sure, you might eat additional servings, but most studies show that even if you do, you’ll still eat less overall.
OK, so what’s the problem with reducing portion sizes in order to reduce food consumption and ultimately reduce the size of the waistline?
Pure and simple, this advice assumes a calorie-dense, possibly nutrient-sparse diet.
Granted, this does describe the diets of most people in the industrialized world. However, it implicitly promotes continuing to eat the same foods, just less of them. It tells us Twinkies, Hot Pockets, chain pizza, and Coca-Cola should just be smaller.
Perhaps they should, but that’s not the only solution. It’s also unclear whether smaller portions would have lasting, long-term effects on weight control.
Another way to lose and maintain weight loss is to eat more; more volume, that is, while eating fewer calories.
On my diet, for example, I eat more food than I ever have, because the majority of my food is calorically sparse. This is a natural consequence of eating whole foods, mostly plants. Taking steps to reduce my food intake would be silly.
Many of my portion sizes are intentionally large. I leave my salads in the mixing bowl. A serving of wild rice and beans can be substantial. A fruit salad doesn’t have to be tiny. A pile of mashed sweet potatoes fills the belly.
And filling the belly leads to satiety. As the stretch receptors in the stomach expand, they provide a satisfying sense of fullness that naturally tells us when to stop eating. Our gut bacteria help, too.
Better advice would be to take steps that help us eat smaller servings of the foods we want less of, but larger servings of the foods you want more of; larger salad bowls and smaller dessert dishes.
But even there, one could drench a salad with horrible dressings, while someone else might have dark-chocolate strawberries for dessert. There’s no getting around the fact that food choices and portions require thought.
At the end of the day, what goes on your plate is more important than how much.
In the News & Views segment: The Victorian Era Diet; study sheds light on portion sizes; gut bacteria tell us when we’re full. In the Hunter-gatherer segment: the Awa. The Moment of Paleo explores ideas around indulging on holidays. And After the Bell features a talk about making stress work for you. This talk complements the National Geographic documentary recommendation at the beginning of the show featuring Robert Sapolsky. Enjoy the show!
Do low activity levels lead to over eating?
Sixty years ago, researcher Jean Mayer worked on questions like this and published results from studies performed on mice, rats, and humans. (Science 1953; 117:504-5 • Am J Physiol 1954; 177:544-9 • Am J Clin Nutr 1956:169-75)
His work showed that inactive rodents and humans actually tend to eat more than their active counterparts. A reasonable hypothesis is that low levels of physical activity dysregulate appetite, or somehow trigger the desire to eat more.
If true, working hard isn’t the only way to work up an appetite. Unfortunately, not working works up an appetite, too.
Now, a study recently published in The Journal of Clinical Nutrition helps add to the present body of research. It’s descriptive title is Low levels of physical activity are associated with dysregulation of energy intake and fat mass gain over 1 year.
Maybe you’ve noticed this too, but it’s the free improvements I’ve made to my health—like changing my diet, walking, spending time in nature, and getting good sleep—that have benefited me far more than any of the health or fitness products I’ve purchased.
But, if I had to choose one “thing” that I’ve purchased over the years that has helped my health and wellbeing the most, our family dogs would be at the very top of the list.
Where supplements, gadgets, special activewear, and equipment have failed to live up to their hype—and tend to perform consistently poorly in studies—the good ol’ family dog consistently outperforms our expectations, even in studies.
Some of these benefits of the family pooch are obvious, others not so much:
1. Dog owners are more active
Dogs are motivators! Sixty percent of dog owners who walked their dogs for 10 minutes at a time or more, met the standard criteria for moderate to vigorous exercise.
If you understand how important walking is for human beings, then surely you can imagine how important it is for dogs, too. In fact, for them, it’s likely even more important, because for them it’s an also a pack-bonding activity.
Publicizing the importance of walking for dogs could even encourage dog-owners who aren’t currently walking their dogs. For some, providing good health and wellbeing for their canine friends can be more motivational than providing health and wellbeing for themselves.
Also, walking the dog gets people outdoors and in nature. Even a city street provides more sunshine and greenery than a treadmill in the home or gym.
Dogs and humans both share a need for socialization, and we can help each other in this department, too.
In studies observing the reactions people get while out and about with dogs, researchers have found that strangers offer more smiles and friendly glances to people with dogs, and are more likely to approach and have a conversation with someone with a canine companion. —The Atlantic
On a personal note, when my family and I moved to a new state a couple of years ago, walking the dogs helped me to meet nearly everyone in the neighborhood. Dogs are the perfect icebreaker. Frequent walks provide frequent opportunities to stay in touch with the community.
Also, dog parks and dog training classes offer more opportunities for people to make connections with each other via their pets.
3. Healthier Babies
Wait, what? Healthier babies? A paper published in the journal Pediatrics showed the following results:
In multivariate analysis, children having dogs at home were healthier (ie, had fewer respiratory tract symptoms or infections) than children with no dog contacts. Furthermore, children having dog contacts at home had less frequent otitis [inflammation of the ear] and tended to need fewer courses of antibiotics than children without such contacts.
4. Reduce Allergies in Children
Some might think pets make children more susceptible to allergies. This paper, in The Journal of Pediatrics, suggests that cats might increase the risk of eczema in children, but dogs are reduce the risk.
Dog ownership significantly reduced the risk for eczema at age 4 years among dog-sensitized children, cat ownership combined with cat sensitization significantly increased the risk.
Cats are great, too. Unfortunately, though, I am fairly allergic to their dander even though we had a family cat when I was younger. I still can’t resist petting kittens, even if I do break out into itchy red splotches soon after.
Dogs have also been shown to help protect children against asthma and infection, too. They protect from allergies in general, possibly via a distinct milieu of house dust microbial exposures. Which leads us to…
5. Healthier Gut Microbiome
Not only are dogs mankind’s best friend, but they may also be the source of some of our best germs. It could be that the associations between dog ownership and lower instances of allergy, infection, and eczema, etc. could be related to the germs they expose us to. This is from a paper in the Journal of Allergy & Clinical Immunology:
The presence of pets in a home during the prenatal period and during early infancy has been associated with a lower prevalence of allergic sensitization and total IgE levels in middle childhood. […] Pet exposure and delivery mode might be markers of infant exposure to distinct microbiomes.
Rob Knight, co-founder of the American Gut Project says:
“The idea of combining animal, human and environmental health, and seeing the whole picture through the lens of the microbes that we share, is an increasing direction for research.”
If our dogs influence our skin and gut microbiomes, which they do, it also makes sense to feed them well, to let them roll around in the soil (i.e. let them be dogs), and take good care of them. Indeed, taking care of them could relate closely with taking care of ourselves.
6. Less Anxiety
The Centers for Disease Control just published a study titled, Pet Dogs and Children’s Health: Opportunities for Chronic Disease Prevention? After the researchers controlled for age, sex, poverty level, and even “parent positivity” levels, they concluded:
Our study results suggest that children who have a pet dog in the home have a lower anxiety screening score than children who do not.
Twenty-one percent of children without dogs appeared to suffer from anxiety issues, compared to 12% of children with pet dogs. Since anxiety often appears to begin in childhood, these finding could have lifelong implications.
Understanding the human-dog relationship is as complex as understanding any relationship. Those of us who have lived with dogs our entire lives may find it difficult to put into words.
It could be straight-up anthropomorphism, but there is something about our canine friends that gives us the opportunity to see our own best selves. When responsibly bred and raised, our canine friends are happy, loyal, playful, friendly, protective, and always ready to give their love.
Throughout our dog friends’ 8- to 15-year lifespans, we share our homes, think of them as family, play together, walk together, comfort each other, and we feel terrible loss when their lives come to an end.
We may forget, because it’s so common, but the human relationship with dogs is a remarkable instance of cross-species bonding (although not entirely uncommon).
Not only do our dogs help keep us and our children healthy, but they teach us so much so much along the way. And that, my friends, will never find it’s way into a pill or winter catalog.
Disclaimer: This article fails miserably at providing you with a ccomplete list of the benefits dogs provide their human counterparts.
If you’re ready to add a pet to your family, this website will help you locate animal shelters, societies, and rescues near you. Please do consider adopting. With patience, you can even find a pure breed you may be looking for. Mutts and mixes tend to be healthier and have fewer medical problems as they age.
Just be sure you have the time and space to provide a good life for the animal you choose. Invest a little time teaching them basic manners, and your new friend will get along in your human world just fine.
Today’s show opens with documentary and book recommendations. Then, in the News & Views segment: Study suggests healthy diets must be individualized; how the Western diet is derailing evolution. In the Shinrin-Yoku Update: How access to nature affects communities; disturbing losses in the Amazon. We have a Moment of Paleo segment on risk and thankfulness. To close things up, the After the Bell segment is about how to staying calm and make better decisions when we know a stressful situation is coming up.
Bruce Lee died 42 years ago, and he remains one of the most well-recognized people on the planet. The legendary icon helped stitch together the cultures of east and west. He was also a renaissance man: athlete, martial artist, philosopher, teacher, actor, poet, and founder of Jeet Kune Do—a pragmatic, individualized fighting system, very much in line with his own philosophy.
A highly quotable man, this is one of my favorite Bruce-Lee-isms. He dedicated his book, Tao of Jeet Kune Do to the free, creative martial artist, and followed it with:
Have you ever wondered how many events occur within a single moment? Technically, this would encompass all of the movements, chemical processes, thoughts, and precise locations of atoms and sub-atomic particles.
We could say the answer depends on the vastness of the Universe or Multiverse.
You were with me in 2010 when I started a wonky podcast called This Week in Paleo. I was sure no one would listen, but I always loved radio and figured I would at least learn something. I might even end up with a few recordings that I could give my children when they were older, I thought. But not only did you listen, you inspired me to continue and improve.
When my daughter, Lucy Namaste, was born prematurely in 2011, I can’t even begin to count the good vibes you sent to my family and me. Those were some of the most difficult times of my life, and you really helped me through them. Whenever I began to feel overwhelmed, I’d receive