Harvard Medical School Commentaries: Food for Thought

Jul52011

Behavior Modification – Could it Help You Reach Your Weight-Management Goals?

by Bridget Shea, Dietetic Intern
Brigham and Women's Hospital

Behavior modification is an approach that can help people decrease undesirable behaviors and increase positive behaviors by making small changes.

Behavior modification can be a very beneficial addition to a weight-management plan. It helps people focus on the behaviors that are connected to their overeating. They become more mindful not just of what they are eating, but how, when, where and why they're eating.

Many people struggle with their weight despite being knowledgeable about nutrition and food. The following tips can help you better understand your relationship with food and how cues in your environment could be leading to unhealthy eating behaviors.

 

Manage the Home Environment

  • Keep foods you crave out of sight. The phase “Out of sight, out of mind” works with foods, too!
  • Keep single-serving portions of healthy snacks, such as cut-up vegetables and hummus, or fruit and low-fat cheese, on hand. They will be easy and convenient to reach for when you're hungry.
  • Stay out of the kitchen unless you are preparing or eating a meal.
  • Plan healthy meals before you go shopping. This will keep you from buying foods that are not part of your meal plan.
  • Don't shop for groceries when you're hungry. It can cause you to make poor choices and bring unhealthy food into your house. Making a grocery list can be helpful as well.
  • Reduce your television-viewing time. A recent study found that when adults spent 50% less time watching TV, they significantly increased their energy expenditure. Energy expenditure is an important component of energy balance, and thus weight management. In addition, sitting down to watch television can be a trigger that leads to mindless snacking.
  • Before you reach for a snack, think about how you feel at that moment. Are you bored, tired or stressed? If you're anything other than hungry, try to substitute a different activity for eating. Go for a walk, call a friend or take a power nap instead.

 

Take Control of the Work Environment

  • Plan your lunches for the week ahead of time instead of waiting to make a decision while you are starving or surrounded by temptations in the cafeteria.
  • Make an effort to stop working and have your lunch away from your desk. Working while you eat can lead to mindless eating, and leave you feeling unsatisfied and wanting more.
  • Eat lunch and planned snacks throughout the day. Skipping meals may cause overeating at your next meal and can slow down your metabolism. This can lead to weight gain.
  • Do not keep tempting foods in your desk; try sticking to a "no eating at the desk" rule.
  • Instead of snacking, take a short walk during your breaks, even if it's just around your office or building.

 

Modify the Mealtime and Food Environment

  • Use smaller bowls, plates and cups. Looks can be deceiving; a full plate can make you feel more satisfied after a meal. Using smaller utensils can help you consume smaller portions, and thus fewer calories at your meal.
  • Drink a glass of water before your meals. A recent study showed that dieters who drank water (about 16 ounces) before meals lost significantly more weight than those who did not drink water before meals.
  • Eat only while sitting at the dining room or kitchen table. Research shows that people eat more while watching television because they're less aware of how much they're eating.
  • Put down your fork or spoon between bites of food and eat slowly. Enjoy your food!
  • Avoid serving food "family style" on the table. You may be more tempted to reach for seconds even if you aren't physically hungry.
  • Plan at least 20 minutes for a meal if you can. It takes your body that long to realize that it is full.

 

Small Changes, Big Results

It's OK if some of the ideas above might not fit into your lifestyle. Trying just one or two from each category could help you reach your weight management goals. The key is to make an effort to be more aware of your environment and how it influences your eating patterns.

Bridget Shea is a dietetic intern at Brigham and Women's Hospital.

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