Picture a rotating billboard. One side says, “All You Can Eat—Only $5!” A split second later, the other side encourages you to purchase the latest dieting program. Do either of these commonly seen advertisements portray the most beneficial or effective eating strategies for you? In the present interview, Dr. Traci Mann presents smart regulation strategies, an alternative that you might have overlooked.
|A Secret About Dieting
With Traci Mann, PhD
|Bradley Cannon, Psi Chi Writer
|View this issue in PDF and Digital formats.
Dr. Mann first became interested in eating practices after reading a few articles about eating and dieting that said the exact opposite of what she had heard her whole life. For example, she notes being “absolutely blown away” by research showing that obese people don’t eat more than nonobese people. She says, “That just seemed impossible to me at the time. Findings like that made me want to read more and eventually start conducting research of my own.”
After receiving her PhD at Stanford University (CA) in 1995, Dr. Mann taught at the University of California, Los Angeles, for 9 years before joining the University of Minnesota where she founded her Health and Eating Lab. Since then, she has conducted numerous eating experiments such as those at the Minnesota State Fair to look at people’s compensation strategies and how people handle a situation such as a fair when constant food temptation is everywhere.
Today, Dr. Mann speaks with us just before lunchtime via telephone on a comfy couch in her 14-year-old son’s bedroom. To readers, she jokingly adds, “I don’t want him to know I’m in here, so don’t tell him. I like to leave it exactly like it was when I found it, which means very messy!”
So Why Don’t Diets Work in the Long Term?
According to Dr. Mann, “The main reason is because you restrict your calories when you diet. Then, when your body notices this, it launches biological changes, which have the unfortunate effect of making it much harder to keep dieting over time. It really seems quite cruel, but on the other hand, your body makes these changes to keep you alive in the face of deprivation.”
Despite the many challenges of losing weight and not regaining it over time, Dr. Mann explains that dieting has remained popular, in part, because of the immense pressure on people to be thin. She says, “People internalize that pressure. They want to be thin, and they’ll try almost anything. However, when they don’t lose weight, they usually don’t take that to mean that diets don’t work. Instead, they take it to mean that their particular diet didn’t work, and so they will try any new thing that comes along. It is partially wishful thinking. They desperately want diets to work, so I would say that they are looking for any possible way not to have to admit that they don’t.”
“As for the medical community,” she says, “I think the reason that they don’t like to come right out and admit that diets don’t work in the long term is because they are worried that people will do almost the exact opposite by not making any efforts to eat in a healthy way. What I am trying to do is provide a sensible middle ground between extreme dieting and just ‘going bonkers!’ ”
When people who have struggled with diets receive Dr. Mann’s explanation for why diets don’t work, she exclaims, “They love hearing that! Specifically, they find that it resonates with their experience perfectly. When I talk about how dieting leads to preoccupation with thoughts of food, for example, they are sitting in the audience thinking, ‘That is exactly what happens to me.’ They have exactly experienced these changes that make it harder to keep dieting. They have noticed that, after a while, eating the same number of calories that they ate when they lost weight isn’t leading to weight loss any more. It is a metabolic change, and they have experienced this and appreciate hearing it put together in one place.”
As for people who have successfully lost weight and maintained it, Dr. Mann believes that sometimes her message seems a little threatening to them because it makes them think that they might regain the weight that they lost. She says, “Only about 5% of people take off a lot of weight and keep it off for 3 to 5 years. Yet, this 5% still has a large number of people in it, so you are bound to know someone who has done it. People tend to use this as a reason why they believe that diets work.”
If your friend Jenny lost lots of weight and kept it off, then Dr. Mann says that this is wonderful news. However, she also urges you not to disregard the science by giving this anecdotal evidence more weight than, for example, a meta-analysis of 30 separate diet studies.
About Smart Regulation Strategies
Instead of diets, which Dr. Mann defines as “anything severely restricting your calorie intake for the purpose of losing weight,” she encourages you to pursue smart regulation strategies. In general, this simply involves “making healthy changes to your eating habits that will help you eat more healthy food to help you reach your leanest livable weight, which is basically the lowest weight you can maintain without your body detecting deprivation and launching all of those biological changes.”
But what if you don’t lose as much weight as you would like? To this, Dr. Mann says in her recent book, “I understand that we all have an image in our minds about what we want to weigh. The problem is that, for many of us, this image is outside of our biologically set weight ranges” (Mann, 2015, p. xi).
Today, she adds, “Healthy foods make you healthy. Healthy foods are good for you. There is this misconception with healthy foods and with exercise that the reason these things are good for you is because they help you lose weight, but that is not why they are good for you. They are good for you, even if you don’t lose weight, because those are healthy things to do. It is good to get your heart rate up during exercise. It is good to get vitamins in your body by eating vegetables. We all need to do these healthy things and just kind of come to terms with the fact that we might not end up as thin as we dream about being. That doesn’t mean that we won’t be healthy.”
Children and Astronauts
To encourage healthy eating habits, Dr. Mann has worked with an incredible variety of participants and faced numerous challenges. She says, “For example, with kids, we are just trying to get them to eat their vegetables. They don’t like them. They don’t want to eat them. They don’t see their friends eating them. There is basically nothing going in our favor in terms of getting kids to eat their vegetables. Everything is working against us.”
On the other hand, she has also been tasked to help get astronauts to eat more on long missions. “One of the challenges,” she says, “is that the food just isn’t as good. We can’t get around that, and they can’t smell it as much, so that makes it taste even worse. It doesn’t look as appetizing. There is not as much variety. These are all things that NASA is trying to deal with.”
Dr. Mann worked with yet another reason that astronauts don’t eat enough in space: because they are too busy and stressed. She explains, “They don’t admit this or anything, but we wanted to see if we could kill two birds with one stone by having them eat their comfort food so that they will be less stressed and eating at the same time.”
To Dr. Mann, this seemed like the perfect thing to have them do. “However, when we tested this on the ground with real people—” she chuckles “—that is, with nonastronauts, we found that comfort food didn’t have any special properties at all. It didn’t do anything in particular that other food didn’t do. Comfort food improves your mood, but no more than eating any other food improves your mood.”
Because of these numerous hurdles and surprises that come with researching eating habits, Dr. Mann has become legendarily known for her sneaky, crafty experiments. Here’s an example.
A Sneaky, Crafty Experiment
Dr. Mann recently wanted to look at how people’s eating is influenced by their friends, which she says would usually be done by passively observing people as they eat in restaurants with groups of friends. However, this isn’t always useful because it is impossible to tell whose eating is influencing whose. In addition, lab studies of this type usually involve participants eating with strangers or confederates instead of their actual friends. Neither of these two studies really shows what happens when people eat with their actual friends or whose behavior causes whose.
To solve this problem, Dr. Mann’s team brought many separate groups of friends into the lab and said that they were interested in how friends solve problems together, but of course that is not what they really interested in. Next, they separated the three friends within each group into different rooms to fill out questionnaires, which they were also not interested in. However, while the friends were separated, the researchers told two of them, “When we put you guys back together, we are going to bring in some delicious food. Don’t eat it, and don’t say why you’re not eating it.”
As Dr. Mann explains, “Basically two participants in each group of three were in cahoots with us, so now we could really see what each third person did when their two friends resisted that yummy food that we put in front of them. What we found is that each third friend generally followed the lead of the other two. Later, we put each third friend alone, and they usually continued to do what the others had done, even though their friends were not there anymore and would never know. That study is now published. It is called, ‘Friends don’t let friends eat cookies’ ” (Howland, Hunger, & Mann, 2012).
The results of this study resulted in one of Dr. Mann’s many smart regulation strategies, which is to eat with friends who you know to be healthy eaters because you will be more likely to go along with and continue to implement those healthy eating habits later when you are no longer with them. She says, “I feel like people know that they have certain friends that they eat crazy stuff with, and other friends that they eat more sensibly with. Thus, this strategy is really just saying that we encourage you to eat with those people that you eat healthily with. As for your other friends . . . they’re awesome, they’re great friends, but maybe they’re not the people to eat meals with.”
Three Future Projects
There is no “food shortage” for exciting, upcoming projects in Dr. Mann’s Health and Eating Lab. First, she currently has a student finishing a dissertation following up on the comfort food research to look at the effects of comfort food on physical and social pain.
The lab is also about to conduct a study to see if they can get people to reduce the amount of sugar they put in their coffee with a mindfulness exercise where a coffee expert trains people on how to appreciate the flavor in coffee. “We’re doing that because sugar is unhealthy, and I don’t just mean for its calories. Sugar is simply not good for you, and some people consume a huge amount of sugar each day just in their coffee.”
Third, she is also eager to continue conducting eating studies at the Minnesota State Fair. She says, “We’ve been going every year, and it is always very fun!”
Advice for Students
For students wanting to go to graduate school to study psychology, Dr. Mann says that the most important thing she looks for in an applicant is research experience. Ideally, she also prefers the research experience to be with humans, not test tubes, so that she can tell that the applicants have been in a lab and conducted studies with subjects.
She adds, “I don’t need them to know certain techniques; I just want them to know what they are in for. Another thing that impresses me is if applicants have accomplished independent research where they designed and conducted their own study. I highly recommend this.”
Before going downstairs to find something for lunch, Dr. Mann gives one last piece of advice. She says, “I got a lot out of talking to and working with my classmates, and that’s what really stuck with me since graduate school. Those are still the people who I e-mail when I have a stats question or if I want to run a research design by someone. I am always encouraging students to support and collaborate with their classmates to give them the best chance to succeed. I think this really is an amazing profession for people who want to combine work and family. It gives the flexibility to do both of those things.”
Howland, M., Hunger, J. M., & Mann, T. (2012). Friends don’t let friends eat cookies: Effects of restrictive eating norms on consumption among friends. Appetite, 59, 505–509. doi:10.1016/j.appet.2012.06.020
Mann, T. (2015). Secrets from the eating lab: The science of weight loss, the myth of willpower, and why you should never diet again. New York, NY: HarperCollins.
Traci Mann, PhD, is a professor of psychology at the University of Minnesota. She received her PhD in 1995 from Stanford University (CA), spent 10 years on the faculty at the University of California, Los Angeles, then moved to Minnesota and started the Health and Eating Lab. She is interested in basic science questions about cognitive mechanisms of self-control, and in applying social psychology research to promoting healthy behavior—particularly eating—in individuals’ daily lives. Her research has been funded by NIH, NASA, and USDA. She is the president of the Social, Personality, and Health Network, and is a fellow of the American Psychological Association, Association for Psychological Science, and the Society for Experimental Social Psychology. Her book, Secrets From the Eating Lab: The Science of Weight Loss, the Myth of Willpower, and Why You Should Never Diet Again, was published in 2015 by HarperCollins.
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Dr. Mann’s favorite food is marshmallows, and her least favorite is olives. She says, “Olive oil is okay, but I cannot bite into an olive!”