Are You Stuck In an Eating Rut?
Menu monotony isn't always bad, but beware of boredom
By Leanna Skarnulis
Reviewed By Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD, LD
It's so easy to fall into an eating rut. Having the same breakfast, lunch, or dinner day in and day out offers convenience and comfort: No need to think about what to eat or where to find it. There are no surprises when you pour yourself a bowl of the same old cereal for breakfast day after day.
The foods people get hooked on range from the ordinary -- burger and fries, chips and soda -- to the unusual -- pepperoni slices with mayo, popcorn, and chocolate, even processed cheese squirted from the can.
Rarely do you hear of anyone stuck on broccoli for days or months. That doesn't mean that eating the same thing again and again has to be unhealthy. One person who made an eating rut work to his advantage was Jared Fogel of Subway fame. In less than a year, he says, he lost 235 pounds on a diet of coffee for breakfast; a 6-inch low-fat turkey sub with extra veggies, baked chips, and diet soda for lunch; and a 12-inch veggie sub for dinner.
Still, many of us would be bored stiff by such repetitive repasts. The answer to whether you can happily stick to such a routine lies in your own personality.
Are You Stuck in a Rut?
You're probably the best judge of whether you're in an eating rut. Definitions vary. To one nutritionist, it's eating the same thing three days in a row. To another, it's not a rut until you've eaten the same food for at least 30 days.
"The subject hasn't been studied," says Barbara J. Rolls, PhD, the Guthrie Chair in nutrition at Pennsylvania State University and co-author of The Volumetrics Weight Control Plan. "I think a lot of people eat the same thing for breakfast and lunch every day. As long as they're eating good things and getting a balance of nutrients, it works fine."
Patrick O'Neil, PhD, director of the Weight Management Center at the Medical University of South Carolina and spokesman for the North American Association for the Study of Obesity, agrees that eating ruts are probably very common -- and not necessarily a bad thing, as long as your diet includes items from all the major food groups.
"If someone is satisfied eating the same breakfast every day and it's part of an overall healthful eating plan, I don't think it's a big deal," he says. "Most people don't have a lot of time to spare in the morning, and at lunchtime, people don't have much time and may not have many options. The issue is, how healthy is your rut?"
Both Rolls and O'Neil say personality may be a factor in determining whether someone is likely to get into an eating rut.
"People vary in their boredom threshold," says O'Neil. "I think people need to become aware of their level of sensation seeking. Some people do the same thing every day after work and the same thing every weekend, and they're quite content. Others have to do something different every day or they're very unhappy."
Some dieters can succeed by ruthlessly limiting food choices. Just ask Jared. Also, in a five-year study sponsored by Slim Fast, approximately 150 people who substituted the diet shakes for one to two meals a day lost an average of 10 pounds and kept it off.
"Monotony is not always that bad," says O'Neil, adding that research shows conflicting results. Depending on the study, cravings have been shown to be heightened or diminished by a monotonous diet.
Rolls notes that many diet books advise readers to curb temptation by restricting variety -- for example, having the same lunch at the same time every day -- and that some popular diets, such as the cabbage soup diet, work in the short term.
But aside from the imbalance of nutrients found in such a restrictive diet, the problem comes with boredom, which can send dieters on a quest for their favorite forbidden foods. "Dieters should welcome variety as an ally," she says.
Still, too much variety -- especially of the wrong type of foods -- can backfire and lead to overeating, Rolls says. The problem is a mechanism in people and animals called sensory-specific satiety. This mechanism served our early ancestors by promoting nutritional variety and thus the species' evolutionary success. But it works against modern people who don't expend mega-calories foraging for food.
"Satiety is that feeling of being full," says Rolls. "Sensory-specific satiety occurs when pleasure decreases as you continue to eat a certain food, such as a salty bag of chips. You don't want more chips, but something sweet will taste good. If we have too much variety, and if it's high-calorie food, we end up eating too much."