The Key to Weight Loss Is Diet Quality, Not Quantity, a New Study Finds
When I bought tickets to Costa Rica, my ultimate weight loss goal for that bodacious beach body was to lose 15 pounds in the span of eight months. Unfortunately, I made a pretty common mistake; counting calories. Now don’t get me wrong, counting calories does work to some extent. But I noticed that I had fallen into the mistake of choosing lower calorie junk foods over good old whole foods that give your body the nutrients it needs.
According to new studies conducted by JAMA Network, there’s strong evidence linking weight loss to people who maintain a diet that consists of wholefoods and vegetables in comparison to people who eat processed foods, refined grains, and sugar over a year span.
Interestingly enough, the research casts doubt on the common misconception that people need diets based on their genetic makeup and their tolerance for carbohydrates and fats. Therefore, their insulin response to carbohydrates did not influence a participant’s success.
Studies also concluded that a quality diet helps with long-term weight loss and management. Health authorities are advised to shift from recommending the calorie counting method to encouraging whole foods and vegetables for meals, while avoiding processed foods.
“This is the road map to reducing the obesity epidemic in the United States,” said Dr. Mozaffarian, who was not involved in the new study. “It’s time for U.S. and other national policies to stop focusing on calories and calorie counting.”
The new research was published in JAMA and led by Christopher D. Gardner, the director of nutrition studies at the Stanford Prevention Research Center. It was a large and expensive trial, carried out on more than 600 people with $8 million in funding from the National Institutes of Health, the Nutrition Science Initiative and other groups.
Dr. Gardner and his colleagues designed the study to compare how overweight and obese people would fare on low-carbohydrate and low-fat diets. But they also wanted to test the hypothesis — suggested by previous studies — that some people are predisposed to do better on one diet over the other depending on their genetics and their ability to metabolize carbs and fat. A growing number of services have capitalized on this idea by offering people personalized nutrition advice tailored to their genotypes.
The researchers recruited adults from the Bay Area and split them into two diet groups, which were called “healthy” low carb and “healthy” low fat. Members of both groups attended classes with dietitians where they were trained to eat nutrient-dense, minimally processed whole foods, cooked at home whenever possible.
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.
The participants were encouraged to meet the federal guidelines for physical activity but did not generally increase their exercise levels, Dr. Gardner said. In classes with the dietitians, most of the time was spent discussing food and behavioral strategies to support their dietary changes.
The new study stands apart from many previous weight-loss trials because it did not set extremely restrictive carbohydrate, fat or caloric limits on people and emphasized that they focus on eating whole or “real” foods — as much 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.
Of course, many dieters regain what they lose, and this study cannot establish whether participants will be able to sustain their new habits. 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. Dr. Gardner said that the people who lost the most weight reported that the study had “changed their relationship with food.” They no longer ate in their cars or in front of their television screens, and they were cooking more at home and sitting down to eat dinner with their families, for example.