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Ask Dr. Gourmet

Like many people, I keep telling myself I haven't the time to eat healthy. I think one of the big reasons I allow myself to get away with this (besides that it's easy) is that I don't want to have to think so much about what I eat. I've read that some busy celebrities intentionally eat the same lunch every day, so there's no thinking or time involved. I would love to take this approach to lunch, which for me is the hardest meal of the day not to skip, but I don't want to choose a lunch that is unbalanced or going to become a health issue. Do you have suggestions for an easy lunch that would be best, or a way to think through this approach?

Dr. Gourmet Says...

a peanut butter and jelly sandwich

Steve Jobs used to wear the same thing every day. When he was interviewed about this, he claimed that he didn't want to have to get up every morning and think about what he was going to have to wear that day. When you think about this it makes a lot of sense - not having to take the time and effort to think about what to wear each day leaves you free for other creative endeavors.

I am a big fan of planning meals. Knowing what you are going to eat, when, and how much has been shown to have a positive effect on weight control. There are a number of reasons for this, and I believe at the top of the list is that by having already prepared your lunch or eating similar things for breakfast each day means you are likely to have healthy choices on hand and not have to resort to a last minute, possibly unhealthy, choice.

There is good evidence today that when we eat similar foods each day we consume fewer calories. In a small, well-designed study reported in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, researchers studied 16 obese and 16 non-obese women and asked them to consume macaroni and cheese for lunch each day 5 times daily for one week or 1 time weekly for 5 weeks (Am J Clin Nutr 2011;94:371-6).

The study is based on the concept of habituation - the process of learning where we move to having an action become habit - and it is that habit that appears to be effective for weight loss. There have been studies that show when people have slower rates of habituation they have higher rates of food consumption (Epstein LH, et al Physiol Behav 1992;51: 945-50). Over the period of the study those who ate the same thing each day consumed fewer calories each day. In fact, over the week of the study those eating the same thing every day consumed about 100 fewer calories each day by the end of the week. When presented with the same meal one day each week for 5 weeks the caloric consumption of the macaroni and cheese increased by about 50 calories.

The feeling is that the repetitive meals leads to boredom and that makes sense. The final mac and cheese of the week may not be as exciting and lead to lower consumption. So while habituation can work in your favor, there is some evidence that a more varied diet can help reduce the risk of metabolic syndrome (J. Nutr. 2015 145: 3 564-571).

In the end, finding a good balance between eating the same thing every day and having variety in your diet can work for you. The easiest thing for lunch is going to be a sandwich, and having the ingredients on hand to make one each day (either at home or at the office) is a great strategy. They are portable and while you are eating "the same thing" each day at lunch, you can also mix it up by having a wide variety of ingredients on hand.

Here's a good guide to ingredients you can keep on hand to have a similar lunch each day and make your planning easy: The How and Why of Eating Healthy: a Healthy Lunch.

Thanks for writing,

Timothy S. Harlan, MD, FACP, CCMS
Dr. Gourmet