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Does picking dessert first really lead to weight loss?

Published April 26. 2019 10:58PM

“If you don’t have time to do it right, when are you going to have time to do it over?”

Recently, my seventh grade classes discussed the aforementioned quotation attributed to arguably the greatest college basketball coach ever, John Wooden, the Wizard of Westwood — the driving force, creative genius, and strict disciplinarian who led UCLA to an unprecedented nine NCAA titles in a 10-year span.

One shrewd student said that the point to Wooden’s words was “to just suck it up and not skip steps.” I found myself thinking about that when I read about a recent study that suggested a seemingly opposite strategy for losing weight.

Pick a fattening dessert first as a way to eat fewer calories.

Tim Newman’s review of that study for Medical News Today explains that in the first and most significant phase, researchers from The University of Arizona in Tucson rearranged the selections in that school’s cafeteria to determine if there’s any link between the order in which you choose your foods and the amount of calories you consume. What they found Newman called “intriguing,” an assessment that the editors at the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied must share because they published the findings in their March issue.

The researchers moved the two dessert choices, fresh fruit or lemon cheesecake, to the beginning of the line instead of its traditional spot at the end. Some of the subjects picked fruit, some picked cheesecake, but here’s the part that caused Newman to use the word “intriguing”: The total calories in the full meal selected by subjects who took the cheesecake turned out to contain 30 percent fewer calories than the full meals chosen by those who picked fruit.

That’s significant. It’s not unusual for a college student, especially the males, to consume 1000 calories for supper, so in 12 days, picking dessert first theoretically results in the loss of one pound.

The 30-percent discrepancy was interpreted by lead author Martin Reimann, assistant professor of marketing at UA, this way: ”We believe diners who chose the indulgent dessert first picked healthier main and side dishes to make up for their high-calorie dessert. Diners who picked the healthier dessert may have thought they already had done a good deed for their bodies, so they deserved higher-calorie food farther down the cafeteria line.”

While Reimann’s rationalization strikes me as spot on, the researchers’ hoped-for end result misses the mark: to “nudge individuals into consuming less food overall.”

Think about it: If you consume fewer overall calories as a result of picking a bad-for-you food, wouldn’t the composition of your diet deteriorate? It would have to. It’s a matter of simple math.

Let’s use a conservative number and say the slice of cheesecake you select contains 300 calories, the large orange your friend picks contains 90, and you are both going to keep the total of calories consumed at supper to 600, about 250 fewer cals than you normally consume.

Can you see the problem here? How do you, the cheesecake eater, create a healthy and filling meal with only 300 more calories?

After all, some single slices of the healthiest and most filling breads contain 120 to 140 calories. Furthermore, 50 percent of your supper calories would then result from a bad-for-you food.

Now reconsider John Wooden’s words as well as the most frequently offered explanation offered by people who eat poorly: “I just can’t find the time to eat right.” You may even use this excuse from time to time.

Allow me to state the obvious here and remind you that you only get one shot at this thing called life. While it’s wise to approach it as a grand game, it’s a game devoid of do-overs.

As a result, it’s certainly worth the time and effort to do whatever it takes to make that life as long and as enjoyable as possible.

That’s why creating time during your typical week to exercise at least moderately and at best ambitiously four or five times a week for 45 to 60 minutes really matters. Doing so helps your physical and mental health considerably, but it’s really only one-third of the battle.

Without the proper amount of sleep, ambitious exercise can actually harm your health. A lack of sleep not only increases the odds of you getting sick and injured, but it also increases your hunger and your hankering for bad foods.

Unless you’re exercising as often and as intensely as Olympian athletes, you really do have to be conscious of your calorie intake to allow the workouts that you do to improve matters.

That means, as one shrewd seventh grader said, “To suck it up and not skip steps.”

And while the research recently done at the University of Arizona in Tuscon is “intriguing,” the researchers’ hope that eating a decadent dessert is a tenable long-term plan to ingesting fewer overall calories strikes me as shortsighted and ultimately counterproductive because the strategy doesn’t ask you to “suck it up” and allows you to “skip steps.”

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