“Just eat less and move more.” It’s the standard advice given for weight loss and one of the first “rules” of healthy living that I ran afoul of. It didn’t work that way for me. To which adherents usually explain, rather testily, that it’s math and you can’t argue with math. “It’s calories in versus calories out! Simple!” But in my experience there are more variables in the equation than that.
Back when I was first trying to lose weight the healthy way (let’s be honest, I’ve been trying to lose weight by various means my entire life), I figured if some diet and exercise were good then more must be better. I slashed my calories and upped my workouts and over a period of a few months, I lost a few pounds and then plateaued. So I took my calories down more and added more exercise (by which point I’d officially left “the healthy way” in the dust). And I gained weight. If the math was correct, how could I be eating less calories than a child, exercising like a professional athlete and still be gaining weight? My math didn’t add up.
The reason is pretty clear in hindsight: I’d killed my metabolism. Indeed, I had that medically verified when my doctor told me my thyroid was underfunctioning due to the strain I’d put on it from overexercising. So the math equation has a third variable, metabolism. And that variable is influenced by hundreds of other variables like genetics, sleep, stress, pollution and, yes, food. Our “simple” equation has morphed into quite the complex formula. New findings from a longitudinal study from Harvard that followed 120,877 healthy, non-obese, and well-educated adults for 12-20 years confirm is that it’s really not about the calories.
It’s not often that research actually makes me stand up and do a fist pump so here’s the money quote from lead researcher Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian, a cardiologist and epidemiologist at the Harvard School of Public Health. “What you eat makes quite a difference. Just counting calories won’t matter much unless you look at the kinds of calories you’re eating.” And this is what it has taken me the better part of a decade to learn about myself. Note: he doesn’t say that counting calories doesn’t work, ever, just that it’s more important to worry about the nutrient density of your food than the caloric density.
He adds, “There are good foods and bad foods, and the advice should be to eat the good foods more and the bad foods less. The notion that it’s O.K. to eat everything in moderation is just an excuse to eat whatever you want.”
The rub comes in defining what is a “good” food and what is a “bad” food. (My one little quibble with the study: must we call them “bad” and “good”? Food is not a moral choice, it can’t be bad or good. Could we call it healthiest and least healthy? Or something?) The researchers tried to quantify this by looking at correlations between intake of certain foods and weight gain. The list is mostly unsurprising – hey chips and pop are bad for you! – but I found it very interesting nonetheless.
|Low fat dairy||-.05|
|Whole fat dairy||+.10|
|100% fruit juice||+.31|
|Unprocessed red meats||+.95|
The number next to each food is the average number of pounds gained (+) or lost (-) over a 4-year period source
While this list isn’t comprehensive (“Where’s the chicken?” asked Quixotique on Twitter when I tweeted the study.) there are some things to note.
1. Why is yogurt is the food most associated with weight loss? Well it isn’t that it’s replacing raspberry cheesecake because it’s just that tasty. Rather, “Yogurt contains healthful bacteria that in animal studies increase production of intestinal hormones that enhance satiety and decrease hunger, Dr. Hu said. The bacteria may also raise the body’s metabolic rate, making weight control easier.” Plus it’s super cheap and easy to make your own!
2. Fruits and whole grains are more correlated with weight loss than vegetables. Is this because people generally eat more of these than veggies? Did they count potatoes and ketchup as veggies? Or have these carbs been unfairly villified? When researchers “compared the effects of refined carbohydrates with the effects of whole grains in both animals and people, they found that metabolism, which determines how many calories are used at rest, slowed with the consumption of refined grains but stayed the same after consumption of whole grains.”
3. Red meat is highly correlated with weight gain but the study doesn’t differentiate between conventionally raised and pastured which given other research might have showed a big difference.
4. Nuts are #2 on the list showing yet again that eating fat not only is good for you but will not make you fat.
Exercise also fared well in the research showing that “high-exercise subjects lost about 1.7 lbs vs. the very-light exercisers. On the other hand, watching a lot of TV led to a weight gain of .32 lbs in four years, and drinking more alcohol to a +.39 lbs.” But as Dr. Walter Willet, co-author of the study, explains, “Both physical activity and diet are important to weight control, but if you are fairly active and ignore diet, you can still gain weight.” Dr. Mozaffarian added, “Physical activity in the United States is poor, but diet is even worse.”
Other factors that heavily influenced weight were sleep (anything less than 6 or more than 8 hours a night was correlated with weight gain), alcohol consumption (wine was neutral but everything else correlated with more pounds), and smoking (surprisingly new smokers lost no weight but quitters gained about 5 pounds – double whammy!).
So I think we can safely conclude that there is a heck of a lot more involved in weight loss or gain than just calories in/calories out. Yes calories still matter but so do a lot of other factors. But even more important than arguing the “math” is that focusing on the positives, such as which foods help your body run at its best, may be a better approach to helping people improve their health than just saying they’re lacking willpower and discipline.
I have not read the original paper (although I’d love to) so my conclusions are based on other people’s conclusions. Have any of you read this study? What do you make of a “good foods/bad foods” approach instead of a “calories in/calories out” model – same shtick just different words or does this feel more, dare I say it, sane?