Putting the brakes on a to-go life

Times Staff Writer

The typical diet overhaul involves the ceremonial throwing out of the bad (chips, ice cream) and the installation of the good (fresh vegetables, skinless chicken breasts).

But swearing off terrible food doesn’t complete the healthy lifestyle renovation.

It’s not just what we eat that affects our bodies, it’s how we eat it: in our cars, while watching TV or on the computer, at our desks, always gobbling down meals while doing many other things at the same time. All of this can cause us to eat more without realizing it.

That should be reason for concern, say nutrition experts, who add that eating behavior is regularly ignored in most diet books, which typically concentrate on calories and fat, carbs and protein. It’s even given short shrift on the website for the newly redesigned USDA food pyramid, which offers up a scant tip or two.


Dietitians say many people don’t understand that the where and how of eating is as important as the food itself. “It’s much easier to say that if I cut my carbs down to 20 a day I can lose weight,” says Susan Bowerman, assistant director of the UCLA Center for Human Nutrition. “It’s very tangible. But if I use smaller plates or stretch my meals out to 30 minutes, the promise isn’t really there.”

“It’s diet, diet, diet,” says Gail Frank, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Assn. “I don’t think people stop and think of patterns and plans when it comes to meals. They think of restriction -- what I’m not going to do.”

These patterns include eating while doing something else (driving, watching TV), eating under stress and eating too quickly, barely taking time to chew the food.

Frank says other meal patterns include switching from a weekend eating culture (bingeing on rich, fatty foods) to a weekday eating culture (chowing down quickly at a desk). “People have a lifestyle,” she says, “and their style of eating is related to that.”


Peter Max-Muller is a perfect example. The 25-year-old is constantly on the run in his job as a Los Angeles clothing stylist. Breakfast is either a bagel and orange juice grabbed from the refrigerator or a doughnut and orange juice grabbed from 7-Eleven. Lunch is from a fast-food restaurant, a nearby sandwich shop or provided on the set if he’s lucky. Dinner is at a restaurant with friends or a Trader Joe’s frozen entree cooked at home.

Max-Muller says he wouldn’t trade his lifestyle for anything, but sometimes ponders his food choices.

“When I’m feeling tired or lethargic, I think it’s probably because of what I’m eating,” he says. “But I can’t see myself preparing foods at night, especially because it’s just for me.”

With work hours and commutes getting longer, there are no indications that our society is going to slow down and adopt the European model of lengthy, relaxing meals. If anything, Europeans are becoming more like us.


Americans, says University of Texas at El Paso psychologist John de Castro, “take the lowest amount of vacation of any society and we feel guilty when we do, so we bring our cellphones and laptops. It’s just epidemic how work has become a focal point of people’s lives. These are very strong forces and they’re not about to change.”

De Castro, who chairs the university’s psychology department, co-chaired a research study in 2003 that examined eating while watching TV. Study participants (78 undergraduate students) ate more often on days when they ate with the television on. Subjects also said they were less hungry before eating meals while watching TV, suggesting that a distraction like television might affect internal cues such as hunger.

But health experts say it is possible to change our eating habits, with some guidance.

Our mothers will be thrilled to know that some of what they drilled into us as kids was right: slow down, and cut food into smaller bites. That admonishment to chew each bite 20 times, however, is pointless, Bowerman says: “If you’re busy counting how many times you’re chewing, you can’t talk,” she says. “You certainly don’t want to swallow things whole, but if you’re aware that you’re trying to chew longer, OK.”


Although we’re tempted by things such as fattening mall foods, “We have to think in advance -- what is my plan for today?” says Netty Levine, a registered dietitian with Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. “Set meal times. Take a lunch break -- put it into your calendar. Think, ‘I’m not going to eat so quickly.’ ”

Other tips include setting the fork down and taking sips of water between bites. Waiting until you’re starving to eat will have you reaching for fatty, high-sugar foods, so have healthy alternatives available such as fresh fruits and vegetables. Eating slowly gives the brain time to register fullness; wolf down a meal and you may end up overeating. Keeping healthy, nonperishable food items in your car is a good idea, especially for long commutes.

There are some trade-offs when developing healthier eating habits. You may get less done and perhaps spend more money for high-quality, healthy foods -- fast foods are notoriously inexpensive. In one of de Castro’s studies he found that having social interaction while eating -- i.e., the family dinner -- actually made people eat significantly more.

But, he points out, “The function of a family meal is more complex than just getting calories. The social aspects of it are very important. If we understand the consequences, we can counterbalance them.”


If all else fails, there’s a dental device that slows eating and restricts food intake. After debuting about a year ago, about 5,000 DDS Systems have been sold via dentists, says Kevin Phillips, the company’s chief operating officer.

“We live in a society that inhales its food,” Phillips says. “I’m going to guess that your lunch will be a rushed affair between several meetings or phone calls.”

Let’s just say it didn’t involve linen napkins and water with a lemon wedge in it. But there’s always tomorrow.