We revisit a question that's top-of-mind for the active set.
Science is about testing and re-testing hypotheses, and the study of nutrition is an area where the prevailing beliefs often vacillate. So we're revisiting a question that's been on the mind of scientists: whether you should eat the same thing, day in and day out.
New research published in the Journal of Nutrition in August found that increasing “healthful food variety” helped 367 dieters lose more weight and body fat and even maintain the weight loss over a two-year period.
The researchers believe this was likely due to a few factors. For instance, participants may have found it easier to stick to prescribed diets that included lots of food options or found them to be more physiologically satiating, explains Dr. Josiemer Mattei, Ph.D., one of the Harvard researchers involved in the study. "Having more healthy foods to choose from may ameliorate feelings of deprivation, boredom, and dissatisfaction typical of a more monotonous unhealthy diet, as well as temper food cravings and lack of food enjoyment that concur with reducing the variety and intake of food during weight loss regimens," she says.
And there are plenty of other reasons to diversify your food choices, says Carolyn Brown, R.D., a New York City-based dietician, even if weight-loss is not your goal and you’re just trying to balance eating habits for overall health.
“Different foods have different phytonutrients, and for most of us, even if you have a very plant-based diet, it’s impossible to get them all in a typical day,” Brown explains. The antioxidants in blueberries, for example, are not the same as those in apples. Spinach has way more folate than kale; kale delivers way more vitamin K than spinach. Mixing things up will allow you to constantly be tapping different important nutrients your body needs.
Plus, sticking to the same protein smoothie day after day doesn’t exactly make healthy eating feel exciting and you want to give yourself reasons to make great choices. “You should love and look forward to what you’re eating,” Brown says. “When we get in a food rut or are bored with our meals, food can feel really restrictive.”
Of course, too many options can lead to decision fatigue, and there’s also lots of past scientific evidence that uncontrolled diet variety can contribute to overeating, since the more you have in front of you, the more you may eat.
The key, Brown says, is to focus on “healthy variety”—which was a key factor in the Harvard study as well, Dr. Mattei points out—as opposed to an endless variety of snacks and beverages. You should strive to have a few meals you love and can rely on in rotation at all times.
“My typical advice is to stick to a few basics that you know work for you, and then get a little creative with preparation or spices or trying a new recipe,” she suggests. “And no matter what your age or taste preference, don’t be afraid to try new—or old—foods. I’ve come to love asparagus and Brussels sprouts late in life.” Just think, this could finally be the year you fall for fennel.