BODY WATCH : Curbing the Craving for Fatty Food

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Yesterday you promised yourself you would cut down on fat-filled foods.

Today you indulged in a single scoop of double chocolate fudge--but you were kind enough to hold the cone--and your taste buds sent an all-points bulletin to your brain: We can't live without this stuff!

So how do you reduce fat in your diet without undue tears and deprivation?

Retrain that palate! OK, so you're thinking what a failure it was when you tried to retrain your dog to like the couch less. But, really, it can be done. Learning to prefer lower-fat foods is one way. Another approach is to incorporate foods "engineered" to taste as if they still contain real fat. Each method has its pros and cons.

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Heel, Palate!: "If you want to shift, eat foods naturally low in fat with no fat substitutes," advises Richard Mattes, a researcher and nutritionist at Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia.

To eliminate urges for high-fat foods, Mattes says, "you must reduce the exposure to 'mouth feel.' " That's scientific-ese for the great feeling of ice cream and other high-fat foods sliding over your tongue. In fake-fat--or modified--foods, manufacturers try to re-create that mouth-feel without the fat grams, sometimes more successfully than others.

Once you have avoided high-fat foods for eight to 12 weeks, you will begin to prefer lower-fat foods, Mattes says. He bases this on a recent study.

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The Fat Study: Mattes assigned subjects to three groups. One group was advised to follow a reduced-fat diet and omit all "discretionary" fat sources, such as table spreads and mayonnaise. Another group was placed on the same reduced-fat diet but allowed to eat fat-modified products. The diet was not modified in the control group.

After 12 weeks, the two groups on the diets had reduced fat intake about the same amount--from more than 30% of total calories to less than 20%. But the "pleasantness" ratings for high-fat food declined only in the group that did not use fat-modified products, says Mattes, whose study was published last year in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Because they reduced their exposure to fat, he says, they began to want it less.

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Whoa, Fat: While eating foods with fat substitutes or the fat removed will reduce overall fat intake, it won't retrain your palate, he says. You will continue to crave high-fat foods. "If it feels like fat in your mouth, that's what you should avoid," Mattes says.

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A Vote for Fake Fats: Relying only on naturally low-fat foods is unrealistic, given hectic schedules and lifestyles, contends Alicia Moag-Stahlberg, a Chicago dietitian and spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Assn. She sees no harm in using a two-pronged approach, choosing lower-fat foods when you can, but also adding foods that have been modified to reduce or eliminate fat. (Fat substitutes can be found in a number of foods, including ice cream; low-fat milk is an example of modified fat.)

Liking the taste of fat is more than a sensory experience, she says. It's tied in to upbringing, family rituals and other factors. In her efforts to cut fat in the family diet, Moag-Stahlberg soon learned "not to mess with (her) family's ice cream." Her husband and two children will tolerate fat substitutes in some foods, but not dessert. Her husband grew up eating dessert every night and considers it a comforting family ritual.

Moag-Stahlberg says more studies like Mattes' are needed to prove that retraining the palate to prefer less fat can be accomplished in the eight to 12 week period he cites.

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Caveats: Whether you try to reduce fat intake by eating foods naturally low in fat or foods engineered to be low in fat, beware: If you think you're eating low-fat foods, it's easy to overeat.

In another study--published last year in the International Journal of Obesity--Mattes and researcher Florence Caputo gave 17 subjects the same meal over three 12-day time blocks. During one time block, they told the subjects that the meals contained about the same amount of fat as they normally ate. During another time block, they said the meals contained more fat than usual and during yet another time block, less fat.

The subjects thought the study's purpose was to examine the effect of fat intake on odor perception.

"When people thought they were eating less fat, they ate more total calories," Mattes says.

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Trimming Fat: Victoria Moran, author of "Get the Fat Out: 501 Simple Ways to Cut the Fat in Any Diet," suggests:

* Buying quality, non-stick cookware so you are less likely to throw in a pat of butter while cooking.

* Buying expensive knives so that chopping vegetables is less of a chore.

* Considering gourmet condiments--such as raspberry vinegar, capers and Dijon mustard--that don't add appreciable fat.

* Using freshly ground pepper and salt.

* Washing and spinning dry salad greens before you put them in the refrigerator. When the time comes, making a salad will seem like less work.

* Putting salad oil in a spray bottle (or buy it that way); you'll probably use less.

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