Chew on this: 05/05

Thinking differently about dieting

By Jayne Powers

Two things in life besides death and taxes seem to dominate American culture: dieting and football. After all, we talk about both of them all the time, and they’re always in the news.

Think about it. The Super Bowl was in February, followed by the National Football League (NFL) Scouting Combine a couple of weeks later and now the NFL draft, which ended in early May. Before long, it will be preseason again and then the start of the regular season.

Every day, let’s be honest, we also think about our weight. When we wake up and look in the mirror, we think about our weight and how we look in our clothes. And, there always seems to be a new twist on dieting, whether it is a new diet book or findings from a research study.

How are they related?

Here’s the analogy, and it’s not my analogy. Credit goes to Glenn Kent, Ph.D., a fitness and health psychology specialist at in Roanoke, Virginia.

The National Wellness Institute recently featured Kent in a webinar about thinking differently about dieting. Kent shared his thoughts on how changing your mindset might decrease the dismal statistic – 95 percent – of the number of people who diet and fail.

We begin with two teams – and they are both you. Team No. 1 is the smiley-face you. It is the person you strive to be. Team No. 2 is the sad-face you. It is the person you currently are, the one who is not losing weight because of three factors that work against dieting.

These factors, according to Kent, are biological influences (genetics), psychological factors and your social environment.

Biological influences relate to our sense of smell and taste. These sensations are triggered by chemicals in our brain when we smell or taste something irresistible, like Cheetos or any highly processed food that meets the “Bliss Point,” which is a particular concentration of sugar, salt and fat food manufacturers use to make food most palatable.

For smell, think of Cinnabon, Kent said. When you come across a Cinnabon store, it is situated by non-food establishments so that there aren’t any competing smells, just the waft of luring cinnamon, which your brain latches onto so all your brain can think about is eating one.

Back to football. When your senses are overcome with such biological factors and you give in, the sad-face you scores a touchdown.

Moving on to social factors: when we eat alone, Kent said, we tend to eat less. If we eat with one other person, we tend to eat about one-third more food and three-quarters more food if we’re in the presence of three other people, he said.

Bump that up to seven people, and we eat 100 percent more. Score one more touchdown for the sad-face you.

Finally, Kent showed how social factors influence eating behavior. Who you eat with is equally important as the number of people at the table. For example, if everyone at the table is obese, it’s going to be harder to eat in a healthier way. On the flip side, if everyone is eating light fare, it would be easier to eat lighter fare, as well.

It is halftime. The sad-face you is winning. Time to make a halftime adjustment in order to win.

Kent framed this adjustment by looking at why diets don’t work and came up with four main reasons. He said if a diet takes a one-size-fits-all approach, restricts eating, relies on a set of rules and makes weight loss the goal, you are more likely to fail.

He used the 20 rules in the book, “The Skinny Rules” by Bob Harper, a personal trainer on the TV show The Biggest Loser, as an example of external cues that prevent individuals from understanding their own internal ones. In the book, Harper, for example, tells people to “banish high-salt foods,” “go to bed hungry” and “sleep right” (whatever that means, Kent said).

What are the outcomes when this happens? According to Kent, eating becomes a chore, and we’re just following rules that encourage denial and restraint, blunting our own self-understanding. In other words, we lose freedom and control over what we eat and don’t eat.

Now, here’s the halftime adjustment.

Kent said we need change our psyche. Going on a diet, he said, “messes” with the mind, and it’s healthier to adopt a psychology of not dieting. Kent said we should spend more time with our food, that is preparing our own meals rather than eat out. He also said we should learn how to read and understand nutrition labels.

If people adopted this different mindset, Kent said the smiley face would begin scoring touchdowns. To win the game, he said, it is important to surround ourselves with others who promote a healthier lifestyle and take a customized approach.

Customizing your diet means eating foods that make you “hum,” he said. Those foods are individual to you and make you feel satisfied so that you’re not tempted to eat more. That means don’t eat popcorn when you really want a bowl of ice cream.

Jayne Powers, MA, is a certified nutritionist and personal fitness trainer based in Washington, DC. Her column, Chew on This, speaks from the science of the current state of knowledge about all facets of nutrition. Find her online at, or email your fitness questions to

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Jayne Powers, MA, is a certified nutritionist and personal fitness trainer based in Washington, DC. Her column, Chew on This, speaks from the science of the current state of knowledge about all facets of nutrition. Find her online at

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