The Incidental Diet: How to Lose Weight Without Really Trying

A new study on the healthful effects of eating at home is only the latest to suggest that delusion, not discipline, is the way to a perfect body

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Losing weight is hard. Studies have repeatedly shown that willpower is a limited resource, and dieting depletes the hell out of it. If you happen to have a high-stress job that you spend the day forcing yourself to do, then finding the strength to curb your indulgences at night is a lost cause. Even worse, dieting involves a cruel paradox: To resist food, you need willpower -- but to fuel willpower, you need to eat.

The good news is, researchers are uncovering more and more ways to get that dream physique sans effort. With the help of subtle dining cues, such as a bigger fork or a smaller plate, you can theoretically trick yourself to eat less food -- no calorie counting necessary. Though you do consciously set the stage for how, when, where, and with whom you consume your food, the effort involved in, say, buying a set of 10-inch plates once every few years is infinitely less taxing than deciding all day long not to reach for a bowl of ice cream. Best of all, since this incidental path to dieting is cheap and easy, it's doable.

"If you do things to outsmart yourself, that's a very astute and efficient use of your self-control," says Roy Baumeister, a psychologist and the co-author of Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength. "It's better to make gradual, long-term changes to how you eat than to use your willpower to resist temptation bite by bite."

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A new study offers another stress-free tip to losing weight: Eat at home. Though many have argued as much because of the sheer volume of unsavory food options at places like McDonald's, a recent study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that dining in home-like environments engenders better food choices. "If the association between positive emotion and healthy food is built in the home," explains lead author and McGill University professor Laurette Dube, "then that environment can serve as a reminder of that association and motivate people to choose healthier food that can make them happier."

Similar to research showing that equating exercise with fun energizes people, the scientists saw that there's also a virtuous cycle when it comes to healthful eating and the home. After monitoring the emotions, consumption environments, and food choices of 160 non-obese participants for 10 days, the researchers noticed that happiness linked to a cozy, homey setting resulted in wiser dietary choices that in turn reinforced feelings of joy at home. This pattern, however, was absent elsewhere. In foreign settings, our hardwired preference for high-fat, sugary food tended to win, most likely because the emotional signals needed to suppress this urge weren't triggered or were simply ignored. As Dube puts it, "Home is a place where we interact with our food."

The potential of using home design, relaxing music, and other atmospheric cues to diet goes beyond vanity. Dube, who directs the McGill World Platform for Health and Economic Convergence, says these subtle manipulations may also be useful for obesity interventions. Since the majority of the more than 200 food-related choices we make daily are made in a relatively mindless manner, she says using psychological and contextual factors could work. University of Texas at Arlington marketing professor Adwhait Khare agrees: "As much of home food consumption is likely to be habitual, it is important to put the right cues in place to induce healthy eating."

Still, for the body transformation many seek, the verdict is out on whether employing subliminal weight-loss stimuli is sufficient. While the signs do point to yes, most studies that deal with this unorthodox dieting approach, directly or inadvertently, use incremental measures like portion size or nutritional value as their test variable instead of bottom-line metrics like inches lost or pounds shed. No causal research has aggregated these priming tactics into a cohesive plan either. And, if a strategy were to be produced, some of its power may be lost if people who become aware of the inducements try to go against them.

Baumeister remains cautiously optimistic about the future of incidental dieting though. He notes that there's not much evidence to suggest that awareness of the manipulations creates a null effect, and that any weight-loss method that doesn't rely on self-control is at least sustainable. "Dieting in general does not work, so the odds are against it," he says. "But it's worth a try."

Image: Olly/Shutterstock.

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Hans Villarica writes for and produces The Atlantic's Health channel. His work has appeared in TIME, People Asia, and Fast Company.

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