When you think of dieting, do you automatically think of calories? Reducing them, counting them, recording them, obsessing over them… News flash: A new study published yesterday in JAMA (Journal of American Medicine) supports the idea that diet quality, not quantity, is what helps people lose and manage their weight in the long run. The study 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 — instead of counting calories or limiting portion sizes — lost significant amounts of weight over the course of a year.
These exciting findings also suggest that health authorities stop pushing calorie-counting as the top way to lose weight and instead encourage Americans to avoid processed foods that are made with refined starches and added sugar. (Think bagels, chips, baked goods, white bread, white rice, refined flour and sugary snacks and beverages.)
The study was originally designed to compare how overweight and obese people would fare on low-carbohydrate and low-fat diets. The researchers also wanted to test the hypothesis that some people are predisposed to respond more to one type of diet over the other, depending on their genetics and metabolism of carbs and fat. (A growing number of books and services have capitalized on this idea by offering personalized nutrition advice tailored to one’s genotype. Maybe you’ve heard of some of them? The Blood Type Diet, Eat Right 4 Your Type, Change Your Genetic Destiny, etc.)
Unlike the majority of similar studies, this study did not set restrictive carbohydrate, fat or calorie limits. Instead, researchers encouraged participants to focus on eating whole or “real” food as much as needed to avoid feeling hungry. The emphasis was on eating high-quality foods — more vegetables and whole foods — and minimizing added sugar and refined grains.
The big take-away from this study was that a high quality, whole food-focused diet produced substantial weight loss and that the percentage of calories from fat or carbs did not matter. This is consistent with other studies which show that eating healthy fats and carbs can help prevent big health events like heart disease, diabetes and other diseases.
Diet quality is important for both weight control and long-term well-being, and we really should focus on a foundational diet — more vegetables, more whole foods, less added sugar and less refined grains — as the key ingredient in our lifestyle medicine recipe. Simple, right?:)