Variety: Spice of Life or Cause of Overeating (or both!)?

Imagine this scenario: You walk in to the kitchen in your workplace after just eating a healthy and tasty lunch, and surprise! There is a tray with home-baked chocolate chip cookies brought in by a co-worker who is a fantastic baker. How many cookies will you take?

Now imagine this scenario: You walk into that same kitchen after the same lunch, and hot dang! There are a couple trays: One has chocolate chip cookies, peanut butter cookies and pumpkin fudge. The other has slices of banana bread, brownies cut into little fudgy diamonds and freshly cut fruit. Now how much do you take back to your desk?

Variety is a great thing when you choose different fruits, vegetables, grains and nuts to get a full range of nutrients to thrive. But it can also be a real willpower killer.

Why do we feel extra helpless when faced with a variety of cookies and pastries? We’re pleasure-seeking creatures, and that makes it tough to say no when we’re presented with an opportunity to enjoy new stimuli. There’s actually a name for this concept: Sensory-specific satiety. As we eat one kind of food, it generates less and less satisfaction. The first bite of the chocolate chip cookie is amazing, but as we continue to eat chocolate chip cookies, the flavor and texture become less novel to us. On the other hand, if you’re faced with a variety of many new foods and flavors, you have the opportunity for many amazing first bites. Each new flavor and texture is a revelation to your taste buds and your brain!

With the holidays here (they’re here, folks!), office treats, party buffets and overflowing holiday tables are a reality. Knowing that we’re susceptible to overeating in the face of variety is a good start, but how do you slow your roll in the face of temptations?

Be mindful. Before you load up your plate or napkin, ask yourself "Am I eating because I'm hungry?" or do you want a taste because something looks delicious, or because this food has a special memory for you. There’s no shame in admitting you want to eat for pleasure or nostalgia, not fuel. But if that’s the case, and if you still decide you do want that treat, take portion size into consideration.

Taste. Don’t wolf down special treats while you’re standing or hovering over the sink or trash can. Really taste! It sounds hokey, but take the time to really observe the way the food smells, its texture, its flavor. Really savor each bite. You may even try to chew each bite 20 or more times before swallowing to make sure you’re really cued in on what you’re eating.

Don’t feel obligated to eat the whole thing. There’s no law that says you have to eat the whole cookie. Ever have the experience of taking a bite and then finding that a cookie is kind of “bleh?” Don’t finish it! You can also pre-empt yourself from eating the whole thing by taking a smaller portion. I used to work in an office where I was notorious for swooping in (with a clean knife, of course!) and dividing doughnuts and cookies into quarters and halves. Some folks may have thought I was kooky, but over the course of many boxes of doughnuts, it makes a real difference in terms of managing my health (not to mention my waistline).

Be compassionate. This time of year can bring up a lot of stress and emotion. Sometimes food equals comfort, and before you can think about it, you’ve devoured three cookies. Let it go.Be compassionate with yourself and promise to be mindful next time. Because this time of year, there will be a next time.


I recently wrote about the importance of having a plan going into the holiday season—another great strategy in the face of temptation. If you need a hand coming up with a plan to maintain your current weight and health, to lose some weight or to work on other wellness issues, get in touch to schedule a conversation.