Have you ever wondered why some people can eat rich foods and never gain weight while others can look at a piece of cheese and gain five pounds? Some would try to explain this by saying, “They just have a fast or slow metabolism.” The implication is that some people because of their metabolic rate burn more calories than others. There’s a problem with this line of thinking. Metabolism is the rate at which our cells process things and this rate is fairly constant from one person to another. Now there may be other factors at play like percent body fat that puts more or fewer cells to work burning calories. Fat cells are less metabolically active than muscle cells. So theoretically, more cells processing burns more calories. But that’s not a metabolism running at a higher rate. If you want to increase the number of cells burning calories, increase your activity. That will improve your muscle tone and reduce your percent body fat. Maintaining periods of activity for longer than twenty minutes is the most effective way to reduce stored body fat. Staying active, not metabolic rate is a key to staying trim.
Another problem with the metabolism theory is that if it were true, you would not have whole cultures that routinely consume rich calorie dense foods and yet have low rates of obesity. In the US, we consume a lot of calories and we have high rates of obesity. The French on the other hand are known for their rich sauces, cheeses, and pastries and yet as a nation they have relatively low rates of obesity. In fact, this phenomenon is referred to as the French Paradox.
If one looks more closely at how the French eat, it’s easier to understand the so called French Paradox or how they can eat rich foods and stay trim. One of the first things Americans notice when dining at a French restaurant is the small serving size of the entree. Meat is always the highest calorie item on any plate. Reducing the meat portion and eating small servings of lower calorie plant foods like vegetables, starches and grains can provide great satiety with fewer calories. Reducing the meat portion size effectively lowers the calorie level of the meal.
Another observation of the French way of eating is that they linger over a meal. In contrast we Americans have learned to eat in a hurry. “Finish your breakfast and get off to school.” Thirty minute lunch breaks then back to work! Fast food was invented in America. So we have learned to eat our meal in a hurry. But to the French, food is meant to be enjoyed in a leisurely manner. It’s not uncommon for them to spend several hours lingering over a meal.
When we take our time eating, we eat less. There is a physiological reason for this. Twenty minutes after we take our first bite, our brain signals us that we are full. So our bodies give us a choice. How many calories can I wolf down in 20 minutes? Or eat leisurely and savor every bite. A common weight loss tactic is to slow down and enjoy your food. Try putting down your fork between bites. Chew; enjoy the texture; note every flavor and at your first awareness of being full, stop eating.
So, the bottom line on enjoying food and staying trim? Staying active, not metabolism burns more calories. Limit meat portion size and include other plant foods in the meal. Finally and best of all, eat leisurely and enjoy every bite.
Tim Scallon is a registered dietitian nutritionist with St. Luke’s Health. In cooperation with Sodexo Food Service, The Polk Education Center and the City of Lufkin, Tim Scallon hosts the nationally viewed TV series Memorial Cooking Innovations. The popular cooking show celebrates the joy of fresh food and healthy eating and can be seen on cable in 62 cities and online at http://www.chistlukeshealthmemorial.org. On the website find healthy recipes, past cooking shows and sound nutrition information.