Chicago Tribune: Every bite you take matters

Every day dieters are bombarded by flashing alerts and wheedling pleas from command centers in brain and stomach.

You know you shouldn’t indulge too much in calorie-laden holiday delicacies that instantly inflate the waistline. But then there’s that urgent signal that you must try that chocolate-clad peppermint-sprinkled graham cookie. Just a nibble. Come on. Or that velvety key lime pie. Or that hipster delicacy, fresh homemade buttermilk biscuits with your favorite cholesterol-rich toppings, such as ginger sage sausage and cheddar cheese.

Result: A nation of dieters, desperate to lose the last 10 or the first 50, seeks fresh ways to cheat the unforgiving math of calories.

Enter “intuitive eating.” The theory here is that your body knows what it is doing when it urges you to indulge. Instead of dieting, just heed the body’s signals, such as feelings of hunger, and of course, fullness. Eat when you’re hungry. Stop when you’re full. Simple.

Researchers tested that theory in a recently published study that pitted calorie-counters against intuitive eaters. The results were, well, intuitive. Those who counted calories lost more weight than those who listened to their bodies. Almost all, however, eventually gained most of the weight back and some of the intuitive eaters ended the six-week study weighing more than when they started, Judith Anglin, associate professor of nutrition at Texas Southern University, tells us.

Conclusion: Argh.

In another study, scientists tested a variation on the theme: Instead of monitoring calories, just limit your bites.

Brigham Young University health sciences associate professor Josh West recruited 61 overweight or obese men to test the bite theory. Not surprisingly 16 dropped out in the first week. Who wants to keep a running tally of every bite? Or be tempted to wolf down a burger in three bites just to keep the daily tally low?

What a perfect way to ruin a meal.

Upshot: Intuitive eaters “do improve their psychological well-being and have less body dissatisfaction, but they don’t necessarily lose weight,” Dr. Lisa Neff, assistant professor of endocrinology at Northwestern University Feinberg Medical School, tells us.

Researchers have tried for years to unravel the intricate biology of obesity. What we know is that the communication between stomach and brain is complex, filled with hormones such as leptin and ghrelin that regulate hunger and satiety, that control cravings and contribute mightily to weight gain or loss.

Scientists have discovered that fat itself sends out chemical messages to the brain, stomach and other tissues. They’ve tried to feather out the exact roles of all these chemicals crisscrossing brain and body in hopes of short-circuiting the ones that lead people to overeat into obesity.

One recent breakthrough: Scientists discovered how a gene switches on or off the production of so-called “brown fat,” which may explain why some people can eat more and still stay trim. Brown fat doesn’t store calories like the more common white fat but instead burns excess calories and releases that energy as heat. Leaner people have more brown fat than do heavier people.

Still, what we know about dieting is what we knew: Calories matter. What you eat matters. How much you exercise matters.

Listening to your body is fine, as long as you really listen. There’s no antidote to eating when you’re full — come on, admit it, we all do — or gorging for entertainment. Or as a form of therapy.

Fewer bites? Sure. But that won’t help if every one of them is chocolate cheesecake.

By Chicago Tribune