Another day, another diet study.
We swear, new ones pop up faster than Usain Bolt traversing a bed of flaming hot coals.
Of course, this relentless research into how, when, what we should be eating isn’t surprising. The weight loss industry in Australia is worth 641 million bucks, and it’s growing year by year.
It’s an industry that feeds on our insecurities and hopes to become thinner versions of ourselves; and like a sad, singular lettuce leaf for dinner, it leaves us hungry and unsatisfied.
The latest? Apparently counting calories isn’t actually the key to losing weight.
The research, published just a few hours ago in JAMA, goes against conventional wisdom that the way to lose weight is to reduce the amount of calories you consume.
Led by Christopher D. Gardner, the director of nutrition studies at the Stanford Prevention Research Center, the trial was large and expensive, involving over 600 people with $8 million in funding.
It found that people who cut back on added sugar, refined grains and highly processed foods while concentrating on eating plenty of vegetables and whole foods — without worrying about counting calories or limiting portion sizes — lost significant amounts of weight over the course of a year.
Interestingly, the strategy worked for people whether they followed diets that were mostly low in fat or mostly low in carbohydrates.
As the NY Times reports, their success didn’t appear to be influenced by their genetics or their insulin-response to carbohydrates; a finding that casts doubt on the increasingly popular idea that different diets should be recommended to people based on their DNA makeup or on their tolerance for carbs or fat.
The researchers figured it out by splitting participants into two diet groups, which were called “healthy” low carb and “healthy” low fat.
Soft drinks, fruit juice, muffins, white rice and white bread are technically low in fat, for example, but the low-fat group was told to avoid those things and eat foods like brown rice, barley, steel-cut oats, lentils, lean meats, low-fat dairy products, quinoa, fresh fruit and legumes.
The low-carb group was trained to choose nutritious foods like olive oil, salmon, avocados, hard cheeses, vegetables, nut butters, nuts and seeds, and grass-fed and pasture-raised animal foods.
All participants were encouraged to meet the federal guidelines for physical activity but didn’t generally increase their exercise levels.
This study was special because unlike other clinical trials, it didn’t set overly restrictive carbohydrate, fat or caloric limits. Instead, researchers encouraged folks to eat as much whole foods as they needed to avoid feeling hungry.
“The unique thing is that we didn’t ever set a number for them to follow,” Dr. Gardner said.
While people on average lost a significant amount of weight in the study, there was also wide variability in both groups. Some people gained weight, and some lost as much as 50 to 60 pounds.
On average, the members of the low-carb group lost just over 13 pounds, while those in the low-fat group lost about 11.7 pounds. Both groups also saw improvements in other health markers, like reductions in their waist sizes and body fat.
Dr. Gardner said that the people who lost the most weight reported that the study had “changed their relationship with food.”
These people stopped snacking in their cars or eating while mindlessly surfing the net. Instead, they were enjoying home cooked meals and sitting down to enjoy dinner with their families.
“We really stressed to both groups again and again that we wanted them to eat high-quality foods,” Dr. Gardner said.
“We told them all that we wanted them to minimize added sugar and refined grains and eat more vegetables and whole foods. We said, ‘Don’t go out and buy a low-fat brownie just because it says low fat. And those low-carb chips — don’t buy them, because they’re still chips and that’s gaming the system.’”
In short, the research supports the idea that it’s about the quality of food, not quantity, that helps people manage their weight long term.
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