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Food/Nutrition Columnist Author: Staff Editor Last Updated: Sep 7, 2017 - 10:06:33 PM

Betcha Can't Eat Just One

By Staff Editor
Aug 18, 2014 - 12:02:08 AM

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( - When was the last time you opened a bag of chips and vowed to eat just a few - didn't happen. You open a box of candy and it seems to keep luring you back to eat just another piece. Or you order fries and when the counter person says, extra-large, you never say small. Many people cannot define a normal portion size and eat a sensible amount.

Instead we vow never to eat another chip or buy a box of candy. We categorize foods as good for us or bad for us. Vowing off chips only lasts so long and the cycle starts again. You buy a bag, open it, and vow to eat just a few. Before you know it the bag is empty, you are guilty, and you vow once again to stop eating chips. Obviously, this approach does not work because 68% of American adults are currently overweight or obese. And, children aren't in much better shape.

When it comes to food, registered dietitians have always recommended variety and moderation. They will tell you that any food can fit into your eating plan. It is not the food but how much of it you eat and how often you eat it that causes unhealthy habits or weight gain. This message was recently backed up by a study from Vanderbilt University.

Professor Kelly L. Haws, who studies consumers' self-control, suggests using vice-virtue bundles to promote healthy foods while not giving up unhealthy foods that you love and enjoy. In a series of experiments ( ) Professor Haws found that this approach helped people increase the amount of healthy foods they regularly ate while at the same time decreasing the amount of unhealthy choices.

In many instances the deck is stacked against making healthy choices. Most of us have limited self-control. We are drawn to the immediate satisfying experience of a candy bar rather than considering its long-term negative impact on our health. And, food is everywhere - at the news stand, in the drugstore, at the gas station, in addition to a restaurant chain or coffee shop on every corner. Professor Haws suggests that instead of trying to avoid unhealthy choices, consider simultaneously focusing on both taste and health goals.

You want a cheeseburger. OK, order it with a salad not fries. Even better order a small cheeseburger with a salad. Not ready to make that step? Consider a small virtue, a tomato slice, to top your hamburger. You meet the desire for a certain food but you couple it with a good-for-you choice. In a perfect world many would say these swaps are not enough. True, but any progress toward better food choices is still progress, regardless of how small. The concept is to keep adding virtuous choices to your regular food selection. Awareness is the first step toward change. Without awareness there is no change.

Professor Haws also found a balance between taste and health that most people will accept, but it is critical not to push healthy choices too far. This idea plays out in the school lunchroom. Many school districts have swapped low fat chocolate milk for low fat plain milk. In the end the kids drank less milk. ( Within the concept of a healthy school lunch, chocolate milk might be considered a vice choice, but it is still milk with all the nutrients found in milk. Strip away this choice and the kids lose out on all the health benefits from milk and in the end the only thing saved is a few calories. Chocolate milk served with an otherwise healthy school lunch might be a better compromise.

Attempting to switch people from pure vice food choices to more virtuous choices is usually unsuccessful. Professor Haws' research, however, showed most people were willing to select food combinations that were ½ vice and ½ virtue or ¼ vice and ¾ virtue. This taste-health balance not only pushed more people to eat healthier options but there was a decrease in the amount of calories eaten as well.

People often rate healthy food choices as less appealing and less tasty. But unhealthy foods are usually considered very appealing, even when a person knows the choice is not the best. There is a long-running TV show where the moderator always says to the participant, "Let's make a deal." The vice/virtue concept of eating is based on the same principle. You make a deal with yourself to include both tasty and healthy options every time you sit down to eat.

© NRH Nutrition Consultants, Inc.
Jo-Ann Heslin, MA, RD, CDN is a registered dietitian and the author of the nutrition counter series for Pocket Books with sales of more than 8.5 million books.

Look for:

The Diabetes Counter, 5th Ed., 2014

The Fat and Cholesterol Counter, 2014

The Most Complete Food Counter, 3rd ed., 2013

The Calorie Counter, 6th Ed., 2013

The Complete Food Counter, 4th ed., 2012

The Protein Counter, 3rd Ed., 2011

The Ultimate Carbohydrate Counter, 3rd Ed., 2010

The Healthy Wholefoods Counter, 2008

Your Complete Food Counter App:

For more information on Jo-Ann and her books, go to:


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