Dieting? Try this
Does tracking calories really count when you’re trying to lose weight, or is it more effective to improve the quality of what you eat?
A new a study published in JAMA revealed that the kind of diet you’re on is less important than the type of food you eat. A recent story about the research in the New York Times implied that health authorities should not keep the focus on counting calories. Instead they should encourage people to avoid processed foods made with refined starches and added sugars.
That’s good advice, but calories also matter when trying to lose weight, according to Falmouth Hospital dietician Michele McGann.
“As much as people would like to hear that calories don’t count when trying to lose weight, unfortunately that’s not the case,” she said. “Weight management is all about balancing the number of calories you take in with the number your body uses or burns off – calories in versus calories out.”
The JAMA study followed 609 overweight adults for a 12-month period. Half of the participants were put on a low-fat diet and the other half were put on a low-carbohydrate diet. Neither group counted calories or limited portion size. The participants were encouraged to follow national guidelines for exercise, but for the most part did not increase their physical activity.
At the end of the year, both groups lost significant weight at about the same rate (10 to 13 pounds), demonstrating that neither diet was better than the other. Researchers also found that there is no genetic marker that predicts which diet is best for an individual person.
Perhaps the most significant part of the study was that both groups were encouraged to avoid processed foods made with refined starches and added sugar. The emphasis was on eating as many vegetables and whole foods as they wanted to avoid feeling hungry. That was the key to their weight loss.
“By substituting healthier foods, they were most likely consuming fewer calories,” McGann said. “Whole grains and vegetables were encouraged during the study which makes people feel full, which in turn would lead them to consume less calories. The key is to eat foods that fill you up without eating a large number of calories.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends the following foods that are filling as well as low in calories:
- Vegetables like spinach, broccoli, carrots and tomatoes
- Fruits like watermelon, apples and berries
- Low-fat yogurt or cottage cheese
- Broth-based soups with vegetables
- Whole grains like brown rice, whole wheat pasta or whole wheat bread
- Lean cuts of meat
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015 – 2020 put out by the United States Department of Agriculture offer similar advice, McGann said.
“The guidelines emphasize fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and low-fat dairy, while limiting calories from added sugar,” she said. “It really has always been about diet quality.”
A Lifetime Of Healthy Eating
Another tip for healthy eating is to cook meals at home, McGann said. You can control what ingredients go into the recipes and you can control portion sizes. Generally, restaurant portions are significantly larger than what you would eat at home. They also tend to have more fat and hidden calories.
One good way to instill healthy eating habits in children is to involve them in the meal prep, McGann said. Kids are more likely to eat food they help make. Another way to get kids to eat more fruits and vegetables is to start a garden with them. A study at Cornell University showed that kids were four times more likely to choose a salad for lunch at school if they had grown the vegetables in the school garden.
Gardening as a child can also have effects that last into adulthood. Over 90 American universities are collaborating on a project called Get Fruved, an acronym for Get Your Fruits and Veggies. A 2016 study from the project showed that college students who gardened as a child or who currently had a vegetable garden ate more fruits and vegetables than those who didn’t.
Hands-on experience seemed to matter. Students whose parents gardened but didn’t participate themselves were not more likely to eat fruits and vegetables.
In addition to preventing obesity or helping people lose weight, a healthy diet rich in fruits and vegetables also helps prevent serious diseases like diabetes and heart disease, McGann said.