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Finally a large-scale study has concluded what I have been telling patients for years! What you eat is more important than how much of it you eat. A calorie is not a calorie!
If you ask many classically trained dietitians about maintaining a healthy weight they will regurgitate the same old rhetoric they always have – “as long as you don’t eat more calories than you expend you won’t gain weight,” and “there are no bad foods, just bad amounts of food.”
The above statements have never made sense to me. I remember taking ‘advanced biology’ in high school. (There was nothing really ‘advanced’ about it. It was just the second of two courses, the first being ‘basic’ biology.) In this class I remember learning about physiology and how the body responded differently to different types of food. Some foods caused the release of insulin while others caused little or no release of this hormone. The job of this hormone? It basically tells the body to store fat. From that information I concluded that what you ate had to make a difference in your weight.
As I progressed through my eduction in college (as a biology major) and then on to chiropractic school where I truly received advanced training, my view did not change – the quality of food that I ate had to make a difference on maintaining my weight. It could not possibly be as simple as calorie-in/calorie-out.
Yet when you read information online or from other mainstream media outlets you will hear just the opposite. “Eat whatever you want, just be sure it’s in moderation.” Or “It doesn’t matter what kind of food you eat as long as it’s low calorie.”
A new study of just over 120,000 people finally has come up with a conclusion that makes more sense. Hopefully the American Dietetic Association will take notice. Individually there are some very good dietitians out there, but the American Dietetic Association is making people sicker and sicker with their stance on many aspects of health in my opinion.
The researchers analyzed data on three separate studies over a 20-year period, tracking the long-term effects of different foods and lifestyle changes on more than 120,000 men and women. Adults in the study gained an average of 3.35 pounds every four years, for a total average weight gain of almost 17 pounds.
Regular consumption of potato chips, French fries and sugared beverages were most to blame for slow and steady weight gain. However, people who ate yogurt, fruits, vegetables, nuts and whole grains either lost weight or gained the least.
Now, I will be the first person to tell you that weight is not the be-all, end-all of health markers. It’s a good one, but there are plenty of thin people in this world who are very unhealthy. Also, I generally do not recommend grains be a big part of anyone’s diet. In small amounts they are ok, but they contribute to inflammation which can be problematic for many reasons.
The other foods in this study – yogurt, fruits, vegetables and nuts – are free foods! Eat them as much as you want. I routinely encourage people to eat these foods as much as possible.
Interestingly, nuts are a high calorie food yet they performed very well in helping people lose or maintain their weight. If it truly was about calorie-in/calorie-out then nuts should have performed poorly. It just goes to show you it isn’t about the calories that we’re putting in, it’s about the quality of those calories.
As much as I’d like to say it’s only about the quality of our food that matters, I cannot. The amount matters to a certain extent. If you are regularly consuming 7,000 calories per day you will gain weight. That type of excess cannot be combated with ‘good’ foods. However, to get that kind of extra calorie one would have to consume huge amounts of the ‘bad’ foods like fast food, doughnuts, etc. Those clearly are not quality foods in the first place.
Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian of the Harvard School of Public Health and Brigham and Women’s Hospital is the author of the study that appears in the New England Journal of Medicine. He says the calorie-in/calorie-out theory is incorrect “because different foods have a different effect on the body. ‘You can’t just say a calorie is a calorie. It doesn’t address your feelings of fullness, your blood glucose levels, your blood insulin levels and the other biological responses in your body.”
I could not agree more and this has been my point to other ‘experts’ on nutrition when we debate the calorie-in/calorie-out theory.
Let me pose this scenario to you –
Two people are going to embark on an experiment. They are going to eat identical calorie diets for the next year. One person is going to eat 2,000 calories per day in potato chips and the other is going to eat 2,000 calories per day in chicken and vegetables. Who will be healthier and have the most optimal weight at the end of our experiment? Intuitively we would say the person eating the chicken and vegetables would be and I believe this is correct.
There have been many short-term studies that have concluded healthy diets only need to focus on calorie content. The quality of the food was not important for maintaining weight. Finally a study has looked long-term and concluded that the quality of your food is important. Make sure your choices are good choices. If you focus on the quality of your food you will maintain your weight more effectively than counting those calories.