By J. E. Hinners, MD MPH
If you can believe it, there are no official studies that have looked at whether or not using chopsticks can cause weight loss.
Most studies on chopsticks analyze skill acquisition, skill transfer, manual dexterity, food serving performance, possible helicobacter pylori associations, and craniofacial injuries from using chopsticks (both unintentional and *intentional*).
More obese people less likely to use chopsticks
Up to date, there is only one study relating chopsticks to weight, where eating behaviors and obesity were examined at a Chinese buffet. The study showed that those with higher body mass index (that is to say, those who were more obese) were less likely to use chopsticks instead of forks.
The association was a significant one, and there was a large number of participants in the study (213)–however, one should keep in mind that so far, this finding only reports assocation and not causation.
Association versus causation – a little epidemiology lesson
What’s the difference, you ask?
Causation would imply that using chopsticks causes someone to lose weight (or have a lower body mass index). Association means a correlation can be found, but causation may not be concluded. These terms are frequently confused with each other, and studies can easily be misreported in news and popular media so that the public misinterprets the findings to be making causation-type statements.
Why does mixing up these concepts matter?
The important error that can occur by mixing up these terms is that there may be a third variable that is actually the root cause of both of the variables studied (called a “confounding variable”).
Hypothetical example: Let’s say a study shows that those who use headlights during the daytime when they drive are found by correlation to experience less car crashes.
Variable 1: Those who use headlights
Variable 2: Less car crashes
Misinterpretation of this study: Using headlights during the daytime will decrease your chances of getting into a car crash.
While it’s very possible that a separate study might be able to show that there is actually truth that using headlights during the daytime will decrease chances of getting into a car crash, this particular study does not prove such causation. It reports merely an association, which means that the real cause of less car crashes may actually be a different and third variable, such as:
Variable 3: Being a person who is highly safety-conscious and careful
Here, you can see that being a person who is highly safety-conscious and careful (variable 3) may actually be the real reason that people get into less car crashes (and not because of merely using headlights in the daytime).
Being a careful, safety-consious person may be the cause of both using headlights and getting into less crashes; so therefore, of course an association will be made between those who use headlights and those who get into less car crashes. But the reason for getting into less crashes may be simply because the person drives more carefully in the first place, reducing chances of getting into a car crash.
Back to chopsticks…
So in the case of this one chopsticks study showing that those with larger body mass index are less likely to use chopsticks, it is possible that there is a third, confounding variable that is the real cause for less chopstick use among those who are more obese.
As one example, perhaps the study participants who were more obese were more likely to be westerners and not as skilled at using chopsticks as other non-western study participants. If that were the case, then these particular westerners may have chosen forks over chopsticks due to comfort level, and it could not be concluded that lack of chopstick use caused these people to have higher body mass index.
There is not yet proof that chopsticks actually cause weight loss.
However, the theory that chopstick use can slow down eating rates may support the notion that chopsticks could help encourage weight loss.
Slow eating for decreased calorie intake
If using chopsticks causes you to slow down your eating rate a bit, then in that case, you may be helping yourself to take in less calories per meal, as slower eating rates do appear to decrease calorie intake. The main reason for decreased calorie intake is that your body has more time to produce satiation signals that tell you you’re full.
Kimiko Barber has written a recipe book based on this principle, called The Chopsticks Diet. The book is filled with Japanese-inspired recipes to be eaten only with chopsticks for assisting with weight loss.
Chopsticks for weight loss – a personal experiment
Seeing as there were no official studies comparing possible weight changes before and after using chopsticks, I decided to take on a personal chopstick challenge, myself, and document my own before-and-after weights.
Granted–this study of mine was an informal one and could only be considered a case study, since I was the only subject. 🙂 So my own results really can’t be generalizable for the public at large, as a well-conducted study on the subject would include at least 50 subjects with all possible confounding variables accounted for.
Having said that disclaimer….
Here’s what I did
For a 30-day period, I refrained from eating with any western utensils and only ate with chopsticks. I did not change anything about my normal food choices or exercise routine.
I did not have the goal of losing weight but wanted to see if I would observe any weight changes before and after the 30-day period.
I used the same scale and weighed myself at the same approximate time at each weighing.
I expected some weight loss, mostly due to the fact that I started off my 30 days as a complete chopstick novice! So I expected some learning curve frustrations that might have discouraged me from eating and might have caused me to lose weight.
I observed no weight change whatsoever!
Day 1: 114 lbs
Day 8: 112.4 lbs
Day 15: 114 lbs
Day 22: 113.2 lbs
Day 29: 114 lbs
Day 31: 114 lbs
Difference in weight (lbs) between Day 1 and Day 31 = ZERO
Clearly, generalizations can’t be made from my one case–particularly as I tend to carefully estimate how much food I will eat per meal at the first serving. So my food portions would have been more or less already decided in my mind before I would have even started using chopsticks at each meal.
If I had wanted to the chopsticks to have more of a weight loss effect, in my case, perhaps I could have intentionally placed smaller portions than I normally eat on my plate. The theoretically slower chopstick use would have caused me to feel fuller sooner before I could reload my plate with more food, so I might have eaten less food per meal if I had started off with smaller-than-normal food portions.
It was an adventure, though, and now I’m quite comfortable using chopsticks!