My bold new plan: the Sit-Down Diet

In this simple regimen, there’s just one rule to observe

Posted Oct 19, 2010

Do you want to know about a diet that requires neither calorie-counting nor deprivation and doesn't involve weight-loss books, punishing exercise routines or expensive supplements? It's free, it's simple and anyone can do it. In fact, there's only one simple rule to follow: you may only eat when you are sitting down. Not in a car, not at a desk or in a subway train, but at a table designed for the consumption of food. Let's call it the Sit-Down Diet.

The idea was born from a passing comment my husband made last weekend when he saw me standing in the kitchen, eating the leftovers off our children's plates before loading them in the dishwasher. "Have you noticed how often you eat standing up?" he observed, grinning. "I wonder what would happen if you only ever ate when sitting at the dining table." Thud went the gauntlet.

The Sit-Down Diet is based on the idea that when we sit down to eat, we consume fewer calories and more nutritious food than when we're standing up or walking. As an added bonus, when we sit down to eat and chew our food properly, we're more likely to digest and assimilate it well than when eating while rushing around.

Like most diets, the Sit-Down Diet may not work for everyone. But if, like me, you have a busy life and regularly nibble on tasty tidbits while standing in front of your fridge, shopping, preparing a meal or travelling, it may work for you! And while the Sit-Down Diet is not (yet) scientifically proven, it is nonetheless based on hard evidence.

For one, mindless eating is fattening. As Cornell University consumer behaviour professor Brian Wansink shows in his excellent book, ‘Mindless Eating,' many of us over-eat because we eat in response to external cues and distractions rather than a genuine physical need for food. I believe that sitting down to eat (without a TV, computer or book to distract us) focuses our mind on eating and makes us more attuned to physical cues for hunger and satiety. (Please also consult the excellent mindful-eating work of fellow PT-blogger, Susan Albers.)

Moreover, scientists have shown that most of the foods we eat standing up are low in nutritional value and high in empty calories. A study published last year in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association showed that young adults who eat on the run consume more fast foods and soft drinks and less healthy food than their peers who make time to sit down to dinner, eating more fruit and vegetables in the process.

Another investigation conducted by Cornell University researchers showed that time-starved working parents struggle to find the time to sit down to a home-cooked meal. Instead, many of them grab quick foods at work or opt for fast food and take-out meals of inferior nutritional quality.

That sit-down eating can favor healthy weight was shown in a study published recently in the Journal of Pediatrics. Researchers studying children in Greece found that those who regularly sat down to family meals ate more vegetables and fewer snack foods and were thinner than their peers who did not have these eating habits.

How might sitting at a table translate into healthy weight? In part it is because we slow down when we sit down. And slowing down means consuming fewer calories; for when we eat slowly we feel fuller and more satisfied than when we wolf down our food.

Previously considered an old wives' tale, the link between eating quickly and weight gain was recently confirmed by a clever intervention study where healthy adult male volunteers were served a large cup (300 ml) of ice cream on two different occasions. One time, the men were given five minutes to eat the ice cream; the other time, 30 minutes were allotted. Same volunteers, same amount of ice cream - but when people took a half hour to eat the food, their rating of ‘fullness' rose and two gut hormones related to appetite satisfaction increased markedly.

How does any of this relate to cancer prevention? The link is obesity, for excess weight is a key cancer risk factor. The World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF) in its 2009 Policy Report estimates that nearly a fifth of all cancers of the esophagus, pancreas, gallbladder, colon, rectum, breast, endometrium and kidney in the US could be prevented if people had a healthy body weight. (For a global perspective on obesity and cancer, please watch this excellent talk by Professor Philip James, the President of the International Association for the Study of Obesity, given at a WCRF conference I recently attended).

Seen in this light, almost anything we can do to prevent obesity is worth a try - even sitting down to eat!

To practice what I preach, I will spend the next week only eating when seated; then I will report my findings here. Won't you join me? There's room at the table!

Conner is a nutritionist, health writer and teaches health-cookery classes. She is the author of ‘Zest for Life, The Mediterranean Anti-Cancer Diet,' a cancer-prevention nutrition guide and cookbook published recently in the UK and soon to be available in the US.