Does Unfamiliar Food Cause Weight Loss?

My theory of weight control predicts that eating unfamiliar food will cause weight loss. As food becomes familiar, we learn to associate its smell with its calories. Stronger smell-calorie associations produce a higher set point than weaker ones. Unfamiliar food has not yet gone through this learning process.

One way to eat unfamiliar food is to travel to another country. When I’ve done this, I’ve usually come home a few pounds lighter, supporting the prediction.

Another way is to have someone else choose what you’ll eat.  This is what Dan Goldstein did. “I emailed my friend Dan Reeves, who has a fitness-expert sister named Melanie Reeves Wicklow, to request a healthy diet I could follow for seven days with no exceptions.” He thought of it as a diet where he would make no decisions about what to eat.

Here’s what happened on Day One:

Discovered that if you eat oatmeal with an egg in it instead of just oatmeal, you feel full for much longer.

Here’s what happened overall:

I lost 15 pounds in about a couple months after the “no-decision” diet. (I lost no weight during the week of the diet).

My explanation: During the week of the diet, he ate the specified amounts, which were more than he would have eaten based on hunger. This kept his weight up. During the following weeks, three things happened: 1. He resumed eating according to hunger. His lower set point caused lack of hunger, which caused less eating, which caused weight loss. 2. Because he ate less, his set point went down. 3. During the no-decision week, he picked up some new habits, causing him to eat less familiar food during the following weeks. He says that the no-decision week “changed his cravings” and caused him to “commit to eating better”.

He also says the no-decision week caused him to exercise more but no details are given. I doubt this made a difference. Few people lose 15 pounds in two months from exercise so minor that they don’t bother to describe it.

Thanks to Andrew Gelman.

2 Replies to “Does Unfamiliar Food Cause Weight Loss?”

  1. It’s interesting that only people who travel to countries where people are thin lose weight. You went to France, where people are thin, and lost weight. I went to Thailand and lost weight, another thin country. It’s quite common for people to lose weight specifically on trips to France, if reports on the web are to be believed.

    You conclude its’s the unfamiliar food, but nobody loses weight when traveling to England or Australia where the food is equally unfamiliar, so that doesn’t make sense. It seems far more likely that there are certain things about the eating habits of people in thin countries that have an effect even on visitors, causing them to eat less. It could be smaller portion sizes having a psychological effect – you feel weird eating so much more than the locals. It could be simply seeing so many thin people everywhere and becoming ashamed of your weight, or even aware for the first time that you are overweight (many Americans are shockingly delusional about this)

    Nor are the people who live in these countries – who are thin – eating unfamiliar food. It seems far more likely that what is keeping French people thin begins to exert an effect on visitors – in other words it makes more sense that there is one common factor that explains both French people being thin and visitors to France lose weight, and that can’t be unfamiliar food.

  2. a week isn’t very long – i know my weight pops up and down a lot probably based on water – so he might have lost as much as a pound that week, who knows.

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