A groundbreaking nutrition study by the Institute for Food, Policy and the Family in Virginia says obesity is caused not by calories, but from a lack of enjoyment of food and inappropriate settings while eating it.
'Our research indicates that the worldwide obesity epidemic is not so much a problem of overconsumption as underenjoyment," said Dr. Elyse Carnahan, chief nutritionist at the Institute.
Following the eating habits of 4,500 Americans, Western Europeans and Japanese, the study showed that what you eat isn't is important as when and how you eat it.
"Eating in the appropriate setting is surprisingly important," Carnahan said. "The results of the study went against everything that we thought we knew about calorie intake."
She added that more important than actual calories is a calorie index the scientists developed after completing the 6-year, $3.7 million study.
"The calorie index of foods rises or falls depending on enjoyment of food and setting," Carnahan said.
On the calorie index, a 600 calorie Big Mac eaten in the car on the way home from working overtime has almost 3 times the impact that a 600-calorie slice of cheesecake eaten at a party with family and friends.
"It defies conventional wisdom," Carnahan said.
The study may help explain the "French Paradox" that has long puzzled nutritionists: why do the French, whose penchant for high-fat, high-calorie foods like croissants and foie gras is well-known, maintain slim figures and low rates of heart disease while Americans bloat up like oversized SUVs?
"French people enjoy their food," Carnahan said. "It's really that simple."
The study also explains recent rises in rates of obesity in Japan and Europe, places where people have traditionally been slim.
"As they eat more like Americans, on the go, in front of the TV and often alone, they are beginning to look more like us," said Carnahan.
"Unfortunately," she added.
Carnahan said the study shows the importance of eating in a pleasant setting, with family or friends, and with few distractions from food and conversation.
"Emotion is so imporant to caloric index," Carnahan said. "A tension-filled meal at the table is almost as bad as fast food in front of the TV. Not quite, but almost."
Carnahan said her group tracked rises in caloric index to unpleasant conversational subjects like confrontation and blame. Talking about weight loss and calorie-counting at meals were no-no's as well.
"The worst is for someone to say 'Oh, I'll bet this lasagna has 1000 calories,'" said Carnahan. "Complaining about high-calorie foods ironically sends the caloric index through the roof."