Weight management and weight loss (and, by association, weight gain) are two peas in a pod…but only eat one of them!
I have written on this topic so many times in opinion pieces and in scientific reviews that I’m reluctant to do so again. But this most recent article in the NY Times has inspired me to, again, reiterate that the basic laws of physics always apply when it comes to weight management.
Those first and most important laws are that energy can neither be created nor destroyed, just converted to another form. The other is that calories in vs calories out will determine whether or not weight stays the same or changes, except in metabolic diseases or pharmacologic interferences. (Some drugs, for example, reduce your ability to lose weight by slowing metabolism such that low calorie intake does not work as well as it otherwise should or would.)
Yet, this article still presumes to announce “that diet quality, not quantity, is what helps people lose and manage their weight most easily in the long run.” In the next sentence, it gives away its cards: it “suggests that health authorities should shift away from telling the public to obsess over calories and instead encourage Americans to avoid processed foods that are made with refined starches and added sugar, like bagels, white bread, refined flour and sugary snacks and beverages.”
And most importantly, in the second to last paragraph, it confirms the laws of physics: “both groups ultimately ended up consuming fewer calories on average by the end of the study, even though they were not conscious of it.”
In other words, both study groups – the low-fat and the low-carb groups – were encouraged to avoid the kinds of foods associated with populations-wide weight gains as processing and manufacturing of “food” has reached into world-wide communities to increase average body weight. When prompted and encouraged to avoid these kinds of foods, and to consume more whole-grain and natural fruits and veggies, people invariably eat fewer calories…as we’ve been saying for at least 30 years now!
So the title of the article was to catch your eyeballs but the meat of it was to reinforce the standard message of those who are aware of the obesity and weight loss research. Basically, all this study did was make it a point to not discuss caloric intake with the understanding that redirecting diet away from the foods obese people normally ate toward healthier, whole-quality foods would reduce overall caloric intake…and subsequent weight loss.
Now you might have noticed that both diets only led to 12-13 pounds of weight lost over a year’s time. While those were the averages, it noted that some folks lost a lot – 40-50 lbs – while some even gained weight. Since diets were not strictly controlled, these results demonstrated what we’ve known for quite a while about diet/weight loss studies: some folks gain, some lose and on average the total weight lost is closer to zero than most researchers, trainer, clinicians and dieters are willing to admit.
There are multiple reasons for this. First, some dieters cheat. DUH! Even on a pre-packaged program, some deviate from the program’s restrictions to eat what their habits dictated. Second, many ‘compensate’ whereby they eat less so move more. In exercise-based studies of weight loss, we often see compensation in the form of eating more to make up for the increased activity they participated in.
Finally, and more recently, researchers have noticed that ‘substitution’ occurs whereby people encouraged to exercise more tended to move less elsewhere in their daily lives; this resulted in fewer overall calories burned than was expected. In dietary terms, as those who gained weight in the NYT article, there’s a good chance those who gained weight both cheated and substituted; those who lost lots of weight probably used the program to support goals they’d long held but needed assistance to achieve.
The takeaway from this article is nicely summarized by Dr. Gardner’s line at the very end: “We really need to focus on that foundational diet, which is more vegetables, more whole foods, less added sugar and less refined grains.” Redirecting focus away from calories is most useful in this endeavor. But I do wish he’d had mentioned that we also need to focus on that ‘foundational’ element of weight management known as exercise in order to provide the basis for long-term weight control. I would’ve applauded more loudly had he done so. If you would like more info on weight management, feel free to check out my other blogs here, here, and here.