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Worried about eating too much? Pay attention to texture

Published January 26. 2013 09:02AM

Sometimes it's a blessing. Sometimes it's a curse. I'm overly introspective.

But self-analysis has always aided my health and fitness (though it can impede athletic performance), so many of my columns encourage you to do the same.

Today, I'll share some recent introspection that explains why I feel like such a fraud when I write about my personal low-calorie food creations.

I get no feedback about those articles. If at least a few readers found the recipes tasty, don't you think I'd get at least one e-mail saying so?

Years ago, when I wrote that it was an absolute sin that the federal government considered ketchup an acceptable vegetable in school lunch programs, an out-of-state doctor wrote to agree and thank me for drawing attention to such appalling politics. Other e-mails from local readers expressed the same.

When Jack LaLanne died and I wrote that his life should serve as inspiration to us all, a friend of his from the West coast wrote to express gratitude for memorializing him. When I wrote about a connection between type 2 diabetes and Alzheimer's disease, two readers wrote to say that the article allowed them to understand why a family member contracted the latter disease at such an early age.

Yet when I write about my low-cal food creations, correspondence stops. Recent research, however, has provided a clue as to the reason why.

While some people eat purely for taste, I eat as much for texture. As a result, if my low-cal creation doesn't taste the same as what it is designed to replace, that's fine with me as long as it has a pleasing texture.

Furthermore, I like to feel full and try to eat as few calories as possible. Quite often, a thick texture to a low-cal food produces that.

Researchers at the University of Sussex determined that thick texture creates a feeling of fullness by designing an experiment where subjects drank a yogurt-based drink and then consumed the same drink made with a thickening agent that adds negligible calories, tara gum. Subjects served both not only detected the change in texture, but also found the thicker version to be more filling even though the amount of calories remained the same.

In a Medical News Today article, Keri McCrickerd, the researcher in charge, said, "Our study shows that consumers are sensitive to subtle changes in oral sensory characteristics of a drink, and that thick texture and creamy flavor can be manipulated to enhance expectations of fullness and satiety regardless of calories."

So if you can find a way to make your foods thicker, you may become thinner. Interestingly enough, it occurred to me that the recent improvements I've made to preparing a few of my food staples all increased their thickness.

One of those low-cal food columns that I felt bombed, for instance, explained how to prepare acorn squash so it's a main meal that tastes like a desert. The suggestion then was to serve it warm out of the oven.

But this fall, I was headed to an early-morning race, yet wanted to eat the squash as soon as I returned home. As a result, I made it the night before and placed it in the refrigerator.

Starved upon my return, I took a spoonful of the stuff before I reheated it. The squash was thicker and sweeter after being refrigerated over night.

The bowl never made it to the microwave.

Now I make the squash the night before and consume it cold.

Similarly, I have swirled high-fiber cereal into a mixture of fat-free yogurt and whey protein protein for 20 years. I like it so much that on days I teach, I eat it for breakfast and a late-night snack.

For something different about a year ago, I added the high-fiber cereal on Sunday afternoon, the typical time when I add the whey protein powder to all the yogurt I plan to eat that week. Refrigerated for a minimum of 12 hours, the fiber absorbed much of the moisture and gave the meal a different consistency, one that reminded me of the crust of an ice cream pie.

Better yet, the thicker version despite no change in calories seemed to keep me from feeling as hungry in school before lunch.

On a related note, fruit juice does not have a thick texture, and a study focused on it and published in last December's International Journal of Obesity seems to support the theory that a thickness to foods does a better job at keeping hunger at bay. In the study, subjects actually reported higher levels of hunger and gained weight when they had fruit juice before meals.

Eating apples and grapes before lunch, however, did not have the same affect. Subjects ate less on these days than on the days they drank fruit juice, though the reduction in food consumption was not as high as the researchers had hoped.

These results come as no surprise to me.

For years, I have written that fruit is nature's candy. It's primarily water and a combination of natural sugars.

The fiber found in it and the fructose that so easily stores as body fat is why fruit doesn't increase your blood sugar to the degree that candy does.

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