Food Fright

Are your food hang-ups making you fat?

Food Fright
Are your food hang-ups making you fat?

Boiled chicken, steamed green beans, plain white rice—no, this bland meal is not what Scofield is scarfing down in jail on Prison Break but, rather, the uninspiring lunch Natasha*, a Montreal marketing director in her early 30s, would have for lunch day in and day out for months (even bringing it in a Tupperware container to movie theatres on dinner dates), part of a super-strict diet she’d put herself on in an effort to get as lean and fit as possible. Talk about boring your tastebuds to death.

“To satisfy my sweet tooth, I’d buy candy bars and chop them into thirds— it’s cheaper than buying mini-bars—then, I’d freeze them to resist temptation,” she says. A cost- and waistline-friendly measure—if it had worked.

Instead, Natasha would regularly chomp down on the frozen-solid bars, often consuming more than an entire bar. “It hurt my teeth, but I didn’t care,” she says of her desperate chocolate mini-binges. And although she managed to maintain this routine and achieve the rock-hard abs she’d aimed for, after a few months she put almost all of the weight right back on.

Natasha’s a prime example of how a finicky attitude to food, which may have kept you skinny as a kid, can actually be plumping you up as an adult. A picky palate and strict dieting rules can restrict your dietary variety, which taxes nutrition and stifles the pleasure of eating. It can also do the opposite of what you intend: add up to unwanted weight gain. Now’s the time to ditch those food hang-ups.

Saying no to “new”
Do you eat before going to a dinner party because you worry you might not know or like what they’re serving?

  • Fat trap: If your diet limits you to an extremely narrow range of foods, you may not be banking enough nutrients. Plus, if you can’t eat anything but your own home cooking or if you feel self-conscious about eating with others (perhaps you’re a little embarrassed about your numerous requests to the waiter), this can crush your social life. “Eating together is one important way that people socialize,” explains Patricia Pliner, a social psychologist at the University of Toronto who studies food preferences and aversions. Psychologists call this fear of trying new foods “food neophobia.” Everyone is neophobic to some degree—some a lot, some a little—but most people are somewhere in the middle, says Pliner. Or maybe you just suffer from dietary laziness, and sticking to a turkey sandwich every day gives you one less thing to think about.
  • Escape plan: Don’t order “the usual.” The more you try new foods, the more willing you’ll become to try new foods. If you’re super-finicky, start with small changes, such as ordering your turkey sandwich on focaccia instead of sliced white bread, for example. Plus, start eating with your friends; studies have shown that people seem to mimic the eating patterns of others in their company—so if everyone’s trying the fab casserole your friend made, chances are you’ll raise a fork and taste-test it, too. Baby steps such as those will get you closer to a balanced diet that has a greater range of all the nutrients your body needs.
con’t next page >
Health fixation
Does a study clipping from the New England Journal of Medicine help you decide what to order for lunch?

  • Fat trap: What it boils down to is that trying too hard to be healthy can actually be unhealthy. It’s an obsession with food quality, called orthorexia nervosa—literally, “fixation on righteous eating”—a term coined by Dr. Steven Bratman, an American physician who wrote the book Health Food Junkies. If trans fats, hidden sugars, mercury and mad cow disease are making you run from the table, you may be forfeiting nutrients and delicious foods. Or you may start consuming such low amounts of fat, carbs or calories, in general, that you may actually slow down your metabolism—which can increase your body’s need to store nutrients in the form of fat, possibly upping the likelihood of gaining weight.
  • Escape plan: Put down the latest diet headlines and pick up a cookbook; you need to get reacquainted with the pleasure of eating. Besides, cooking at home may help ease your mind about what you’re eating. Go organic so you can worry less about pesticides and antibiotics. Then, practice tasting instead of rating food to turn your focus from “Is it good for you?” to “Does it taste good?”

Domestic travel only
Do you travel only to English-speaking countries, regularly making pit stops at a familiar fast-food joint for a bite? 

  • Fat trap: Let’s compare: while Mediterranean diets emphasize fruit, vegetables, heart-friendly olive oil and low-fat protein, and the Okinawan diet emphasizes lots of fish, soy, fruit and vegetables, we North Americans have built a diet well-stocked with fat, sugar and carbs.
  • Escape plan: Break from your routine food choices. “A good way to start is to simply take the opportunity to try new things as they arise, and also try new recipes that include novel ingredients,” suggests Robert A. Frank, a psychologist at the University of Cincinnati. Don’t cook? Trying different ethnic restaurants, such as Korean, Ethiopian or Moroccan, is a great way to broaden your palate, too, says Elizabeth Frank, a registered dietitian in Lunenberg, N.S. Nutrition-wise, a Chinese stir-fry is a great way to eat five vegetables in one sitting, Mexican food can offer high-fibre, low-fat beans and lycopene-rich salsa, and sushi or salmon teriyaki will give you a healthy helping of omega-3 fatty acids.
< back con’t next page >

Too many diet rules:
Do you have a list of restricted foods that’s part of a diet you’re following?

  • Fat trap: In addition to those restrictions draining the pleasure out of eating, temptation has a cumulative effect. “What makes dietary restraint backfire is that trying not to do or think about something increases the likelihood of doing or thinking about it,” says Bertram Gawronski, Canada research chair in social psychology and a professor of psychology at the University of Western Ontario in London.
  • Escape plan: Don’t skip dessert or walk down the snack aisle blindfolded. “Try a balanced approach that allows you to say yes to all foods. Substitution is key,” suggests Elizabeth Frank. Instead of the double scoop of chocolate-ripple ice cream, having a scoop of frozen yogurt topped with fresh berries will satisfy your sweet tooth and pack some nutrition. Grabbing a handful of nuts can help fight off salty-chip cravings, while delivering protein and staving off hunger. “Remember that food is meant to be enjoyed. Never feel guilty about eating, just choose wisely,” she says.

Still being the good girl and cleaning your plate?

  • Fat trap: Eating everything on your plate won’t save the undernourished parts of the world—it will only lead you to overeat. You also psych out your body’s hunger cues by eating more than you actually need or want.
  • Escape plan: Let go of the idea that you should throw food in, and not out. Overeating is wasteful, says registered dietitian Karen Collins, nutritional advisor to the American Institute for Cancer Research in Washington, D.C. “Research shows there’s a tendency to eat more if there’s more food in front of you. If you want to waste less food, make a habit of preparing smaller dishes and putting less food on your plate at home, and ordering less at restaurants.” When eating out, order appetizers instead of mains or share an entrée, then doggie-bag any surplus. A simple way to downsize portions at home is to get out your measuring cup to see what a serving, according to Canada’s Food Guide (, actually looks like. You can also ease your conscience by skipping the snack aisle at the supermarket, tallying up how much you saved by not buying chips, ice cream and pop this month, then putting your money where your mouth is by making a charitable donation to help feed a child. It will be a load off your mind—and maybe your hips, too.
< back back to first page >