Nov. 4, 2009
SHSU Media Contacts: Jennifer Gauntt
Changing weather, approaching holidays and final examinations just around the corner affect more than just a student’s stress level.
People consume about 200 calories more in the fall, not including holiday eating, and because of all the risks associated with weight gain, John de Castro, dean of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at Sam Houston State University and an expert on eating habits, offers some simple tips that even the busiest of students can follow:
Pay attention to what you’re eating
From television to stress, “distracters” can significantly increase the amount of food one consumes in a sitting. Distracters are anything that take your attention away from what you are doing.
“It turns out that not only do you eat more when you’re around people, the more people you’re eating with, the more you eat,” de Castro said. “When you eat with other people, you eat on average 44 percent more than when you eat alone. When you eat with a large group, that goes up to about 76 percent more.”
When people eat in groups, they eat for a longer period of time because conversation serves as a distracter in the same way that eating while watching TV does.
“Students tell me that when they were with other people they eat less, not more. It turns out that they do eat more,” he said. “They’re remembering what I call ‘first-date phenomenon’ where they go out to dinner with someone and they reduce their intake to give the impression of not being an overeater.
“But, how many first dates are there? The vast majority of meals that people eat are with people they’re totally comfortable with and have long since given up any pretense,” de Castro said.
The same is true for stress, which can affect students differently—some “stress eat,” while others reduce their intake.
“Students in particular, when they’re studying late at night, tend to snack while they’re studying. They keep on eating because they’re staying up later,” he said. “When people are really under stress, it’s a distracter; they’re not paying attention to what they’re eating but are paying attention to whatever the source of that stress is.”
Eat a good breakfast
“It sounds like what momma told you, but it is true,” de Castro said. “I found in my research, the more people eat in the morning, the less they will eat over the entire day.”
Speculation for this points to daily biological rhythms: even when people have a large meal in the evenings, they will often have another snack a short time afterward out of habit; but this doesn’t happen in the mornings, de Castro said.
“When people diet, one of the first things they do is restrict their intake in the morning, which is absolutely the wrong thing to do,” he said. “The place they need to restrict their intake is in the evening; that’s when people overeat. To approach the evening and restrict your intake, you have to have eaten well beforehand.”
Grab an apple instead of a doughnut
The density of food plays an important role in weight gain.
“People talk about eating lots fruits and vegetables, and one of the reasons is that they’re low density. By density, that means there are very few calories per gram of volume of the food,” de Castro said. “When people eat dense foods, they end up eating many more calories than when they eat low-density foods.”
Calorically-dense foods include things such as meats and pastries.
“It’s not the case of don’t eat high density foods, but when you do, eat just a little bit,” he said.
Stay away from fast food
This includes restaurant eating in general, because “fast foods” tend to be dense and presented in large quantities.
“For students most of the time restaurant eating is fast food,” de Castro said. “Whenever people eat outside of the home, they eat much more.”
De Castro recommends preparing large amounts of the meals you cook on the weekends and then storing servings in the freezer to thaw out during the week or sharing home-cooked meals with other people.
“Share preparing meals with friends, in the sense that one person can cook one day, someone else the next, and rotating around,” he said.
Watch your portions
One of the biggest problems with restaurant meals is the gigantic portions served.
“You think you’re getting your money’s worth, but it’s giving you much more food than you need,” he said.
One strategy to deal with this is to eat only half of what is offered and take the rest home to eat another day.
In addition, over the years, portion sizes have increased tremendously, as a colleague of de Castro’s found when he did a comparison between portion sizes between France and Philadelphia.
“The portion sizes in Philadelphia were twice the size of those in the French restaurants,” he said. “And we wonder why the French are lean and we’re fat. They eat, they love their food, they absolutely treasure their food, but they do it in moderation.”
Watch what you eat, particularly on weekends
“People eat considerably more on the weekends than they do during the week—on average about 200 calories a day more on the weekends than they do during the week,” de Castro said, adding that this includes Friday as well.
While alcohol can account for some of the additional calories consumed, beverages with sugar or alcohol don’t displace calories, so they’re added on top of what you normally eat.
“There is no difference between how much you would eat in a meal if you had a glass of water versus if you had a beer; you’d eat the exact same amount,” de Castro said. “So the calories in the beer just get added on top of it all and end up increasing the energy value of the meal.”
Be mindful of what you eat
While this may seem like the tip about avoiding distracters, simply paying attention when you chew your food can make a difference, de Castro said.
“Enjoyment of food increases tremendously, and you generally reduce the amount you eat,” he said.
Exercise, even minimally
“Most modern day Americans expend virtually nothing,” de Castro said. “Their total expenditure for the day is pretty close to their resting metabolic rate, which means they’ve expended nothing other than just sitting.”
De Castro recommends the “pedometer routine,” challenging students to take 10,000 steps in one day, or building up to that.
“You don’t have to run a marathon, just increase your everyday activity,” he said.
“There is a huge lack of knowledge or understanding,” he said. “What people believe to be true frequently is not and their understanding of foods that are healthful and those that are not is incorrect.”
While as many as 10 percent of college women have or are practicing bulimia as a way of controlling caloric intake, which includes over-exercising, and the number of students who suffer from anorexia is immeasurable due to the secrecy of the disease, there are “better ways of controlling weight than this,” according to de Castro.
“One of the best programs I’ve seen for diet restraint is one that recommends simply that you change your intake expenditure balance by 200 calories a day,” he said. “Reduce your intake by 100 calories, and that could be just dropping out one soda, or increase your expenditure by 100 calories, just walking a little bit more.
“The whole notion is to do it over a long period of time and not to do it quickly, because rapid weight loss diets do not work, in the sense of keeping weight off for a sustained period of time. They can work for dropping weight quickly, but that weight’s put right back on very quickly too.”
In addition, the people you hang out with can make a difference.
“There is a factor called modeling: if you eat with someone who’s overeating, you overeat; if you eat with someone who’s a very restrained eater, you’re more restrained,” de Castro said. “So one way of trying to control your intake is to eat with people you know who eat in moderation.”
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