So far, 2016 has been my year of health: I gave up drinking, cut back on unhealthy carbs, and started going to the gym everyday. I wear my Fitbit religiously (forget 10,000 steps; I regularly hit 20,000 or more), and I record everything I eat via the MyFitnessPal app.
I’m feeling better than ever, and I’ve already lost 20 pounds. But I have 15 more to go, and I’m always on the lookout for new ways to mix things up. So when I heard that researchers at Clemson University found that counting your bites curbs overeating, I was intrigued. The technique seemed a bit odd, but I was willing to give it a shot. (Lose up to 15 pounds in just 30 days with this revolutionary superfood plan from the publisher of Prevention!)
In the Clemson study, published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, participants wore an electronic Bite Counter on their wrists (think a pedometer for bites). I thought about testing the device, but it costs $120, and I already had invested in my trusty Fitbit. Plus, I was unclear on how the Bite Counter works—would it know the difference between taking a forkful of food and raising a glass of water to my mouth? (I drink tons of water throughout the day, and I refused to be penalized for it.) I decided I would skip the new gadget and count my bites manually. I’d track them in my head, then jot down the number after each meal or snack.
When I told the lead researcher, Eric R. Muth, PhD—he’s also co-owner of the company that sells the digital Bite Counter—he was wary of my plan. “It seems intuitively easy, but when you are eating and talking, reading, or watching TV, it is difficult,” he told me, noting that people who count manually tend to mess up. “These mistakes would likely multiply over meals, days and weeks, so they would amount to systematic undercounting of bites and intake.”
1, 2, 3…
Despite Muth’s warnings, I was undeterred. But I quickly realized he had some good points. The first night of my experiment, I was out to dinner with friends, and I decided I should have a bite goal in mind. I knew that in Muth’s study, participants had been broken into two groups: One was allowed to take 22 bites per meal, while the second only got 12. Not surprisingly, those that took the 12 bites took bigger bites because they were worried that 12 wouldn’t be enough.
I decided to limit myself to 12 bites—for this meal, anyway—but I realized that my bites were huge. It’s like winning the grand prize at a store and getting one minute to fill up your shopping cart; you overload it to get the biggest windfall.
Taking my 12 bigger-than-normal bites didn’t feel right to me. I had learned over the years that eating slowly, taking smaller bites (but more of them), drinking tons of water, and fully chewing and enjoying my food were smart ways to eat. Keeping tabs on how many bites I took made me feel obsessive, and not at all healthy.
At my next meal, I was eating with my kids, which meant plenty of chatter and interruptions. Of course, I quickly lost track of how many bites I had taken. The same thing happened during at least three other meals, though during the rest of my trial I’d like to think I was (somewhat) precise.
I managed to stick with the counting for a full week, but truth be told, my heart wasn’t into it. Watching my Fitbit numbers climb when I walked up the stairs or did an extra round at the gym made me feel proud and confident. Recording my food intake in MyFitnessPal empowered me. But tracking how many bites I took felt slightly eating disorder-y.
It also seemed a bit random. I wasn’t sure how many bites I was supposed to be taking per meal or per snack. Sometimes I’d take 12; other times it was a whopping 25. Each evening I’d total up my bite count for the day, but it never seemed to have any impact on the scale the next morning.
I think the biggest problem I had with counting bites was that I’m such a big advocate of making wise food choices, and the bite-tracking protocol doesn’t take this into consideration. How could three bites of chocolate cake be the same as three bites of an apple? While Muth says that people who take fewer bites somehow end up taking in fewer calories, it just didn’t seem fair to count all foods equally.
“Obviously running 1,000 steps is very different than walking 1,000 steps. But in both cases increasing the number leads to moving more, which is a good thing,” says Muth. (Here are 6 health benefits of adding just 1,000 extra steps daily.) “Taking fewer bites at a daily, weekly, and monthly level is a good thing, too. It is even better if you can change what you are eating,” but bite counting alone won’t do that, he admits.
Should you try it?
Bite counting wasn’t my thing; could it still be yours? Maybe, especially if you’re someone who often finds herself mindlessly devouring food in front of the TV or having “just a little taste” of everything at a tapas restaurant or buffet (only to feel stuffed after).
“We want people to be mindful of their eating behaviors,” explained Phillip W. Jasper, a PhD candidate who also worked on the study. “Self-monitoring is one of the cornerstones of successful weight loss.”
I completely agree. But everyone needs to find the tool that works for them. It just turns out that in my case, a Fitbit and the MyFitnessPal apps are it.