Thanksgiving and the rest of the holiday season are famously ruinous to waistlines. But a new study suggests that we might be able to fend off weight gain and even drop a few pounds in the coming weeks by taking note of every time we put teeth to food or drink.
It’s scientifically established and also logical that to lose weight, we must consume fewer calories than our bodies burn on any given day. By doing so, we create an internal energy deficit. Deprived of sufficient fuel from that day’s meals, our bodies turn to stored energy, primarily in the form of body fat, to fuel themselves, and we lose weight.
But to produce this desirable situation, we must commit to counting calories, and “people hate counting calories,” said Josh West, an associate professor of health sciences at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, who led the new study, recently published in Advances in Obesity, Weight Management & Control.
Counting calories is, after all, complicated and time-consuming, he pointed out, requiring that you know how many calories are contained in the foods you eat, how much of each food you are eating, and how many calories your body uses each day.
“Most people don’t know those things and don’t really want to learn those things and are daunted by how complex it all seems,” Dr. West said.
So recently he and his colleagues began to consider alternative ways to spur weight loss, he said, a quest that led them to bite counting.
Bite counting for weight loss is not a new idea. Many weight-loss programs suggest that people chew slowly and thoughtfully, paying close attention to the sensory experience of eating.
But Dr. West wanted to do more than have people be mindful of their chewing. He wondered whether, by promoting bite counting, he might help people, almost unknowingly, to reduce their calorie intake.
To find out, he and his colleagues recruited 61 overweight or obese men and women from the campus community. They ranged in age from 18 to 65, and they all told the researchers they wanted to weigh less.
The researchers weighed and measured the volunteers and then provided them with a 10-minute introduction to bite counting.
As its name implies, bite counting involves numerically tracking how many times you chew or swallow. Every food or liquid should be counted, except water.
The researchers asked their volunteers to write down bite counts after each meal or snack and, at the end of the day, send the total to the researchers. They also asked them otherwise not to change their eating habits – at least at first.
After a week, the researchers calculated each volunteer’s average daily bite counts. By this time, 16 volunteers had quit. Several said that bite counting had been too difficult, and others cited medical or other personal issues.
The researched then asked half of the remaining group to reduce their daily bite counts by 20 percent, and the others to drop bite counts by 30 percent. The researchers counseled both groups to concentrate on eating foods that would fill them, since they would be eating less, but did not provide other nutritional advice.
Each day for the next month, the volunteers reported their bite counts, and each week, they reported to the laboratory for a weigh-in.
At the end of the month, the participants in both groups had lost an average of about 3.5 pounds.
Interestingly, the weight loss was about the same whether someone had cut his or her daily bites by 20 or 30 percent. That result suggests, Dr. West said, that those in the group asked to chew 30 percent less had turned to higher calorie foods to satiate themselves.
He said the volunteers in both groups did repor that bite counting had seemed “do-able and tolerable,” although, he added, anyone who had found the process particularly onerous likely quit during week one.
The study also was small and short-term, and doesn’t show whether people willingly would continue to count bites over a longer period and sustain their weight loss.
But the findings do suggest, Dr. West said, that bite counting is worth trying if someone wishes to lose weight and is intimidated by calorie counting.
He has practiced bite counting for three years, he said, without regaining the pounds he lost at the start of this routine and without curtailing his enjoyment of food.
To deploy bite counting during the holidays, however, you must first determine how many bites you take during a normal day. Ideally, start now. Note every time you chew or swallow. Then during the upcoming feasts, maintain or reduce that number, with a reduction of 20 percent seeming the most efficacious for weight loss, Dr. West said.
Bite counting does not, of course, free you from paying attention to basic nutrition, he added. Concentrate on eating primarily fruits, vegetables and lean meat.
“Fewer bites won’t help you lose weight,” he said, “if every one of those bites is dessert.”