Are You Stuck In an Eating Rut?

Menu monotony isn't always bad, but beware of boredom

By Leanna Skarnulis
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Feature

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.

"A few centuries ago, people would have killed to break the monotony of the same-old, same-old. In fact, they did. They fought each other in the Spice Wars."

"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."

She says the key to losing weight on a varied diet is to choose foods with low calorie density and avoid those with lots of calories packed into a small serving. For example, 1/4 cup of raisins has 100 calories. Their low-density counterpart is grapes, which have 100 calories in 1 2/3 cups.

Variety Is the Spice of Life

Are you boring yourself silly with your eating rut? Think about it from a historical perspective. A few centuries ago, people would have killed to break the monotony of the same-old, same-old. In fact, they did. They fought each other in the Spice Wars.

But you don't have to go to such extremes. Here are some ideas for getting out of the rut:

  • Next time you go to the grocery store, venture out of the familiar aisles. Buy brown or wild rice instead of white, pita pockets instead of white bread, and pears instead of bananas.
  • Challenge yourself to try one new food each week.
  • Pick up a healthy dinner from a restaurant instead of having pizza delivered.
  • Have the sandwich you usually choose for lunch for breakfast instead.
  • Try slight alterations to your old standbys: accessorize your sandwich with spinach leaves instead of lettuce, stir sliced veggies into your scrambled eggs, choose a new type of cheese for your casserole.
  • Don't say "Yuck" when friends want to try an ethnic restaurant that serves unfamiliar cuisine.
  • Visit a farmers market.
  • Have a healthy potluck at home or work with a theme: Tex-Mex, Mediterranean, Chinese, etc.
  • Take a cooking class.
  • Buy a new cookbook or get a subscription to a healthy cooking magazine.

And don't forget to enjoy the adventure!

Originally published Sept. 2, 2003
Medically updated Sept. 1, 2004.

SOURCE: Patrick O'Neil, PhD, director, Weight Management Center, Medical University of South Carolina, Charleston; spokesman, North American Association for the Study of Obesity. Barbara J. Rolls, PhD, Guthrie Chair in nutrition, Pennsylvania State University, State College. WebMD Medical News: "Diet Shakes Can Help People Control Their Weight."

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