When a Calorie Isn’t Just a Calorie

There is much discussion over what makes a healthy diet.  Dietary fads come and go. Low sugar?  Low carb?  Low calorie? Low fat?   Much research on this topic has been done over the years.  As science and technology advance, the research is showing a clearer picture of what really matters – and it’s not one single factor.

Current data shows that in order to obtain optimal health and weight, one must consider both quality and quantity of the food consumed.  Rather than focusing on a single aspect such as fat, calories, carbs, etc, the best dietary advice is to:

  • Focus on eating high-quality foods in appropriately sized portions
  • Consider quality, not just calories

While there is no one diet that is perfect for everyone, there are some general guidelines to pay attention to.


Quality Matters!

While it is true that watching caloric intake will help avoid overeating, it is also important that the foods eaten be nutritious, high-quality foods.  Foods that are “Low Fat” or “Low Sugar” are not by definition good foods that promote a healthy lifestyle.

High-quality foods consist of natural foods that have not been overly processed such as fruits and vegetables, whole grains, healthy fats and healthy proteins.  Lower quality foods are those that have added sugars, are refined, heavily processed, or fried, as well as those that are high in saturated fats and high-glycemic foods.

Researchers in the Department of Nutrition at Harvard School of Public Health did a study of over 120,000 healthy men and women over a time span of 20 years.  They found that weight change went hand in hand with “the intake of potato chips, potatoes, sugar-sweetened beverages, and both processed and unprocessed red meats.”

They deduced that consuming “low-quality” foods may increase weight gain.  By contrast, “high-quality” foods such as vegetables, whole grains, fruits, nuts and yogurt were associated with weight loss.  Higher quality foods tend to be more filling, allowing people to feel fuller and therefore eat less total calories.


Do macronutrients matter?

One of the trends in recent years to make things more “simple” for those trying to lose weight is the usage of “macronutrient-based” diets.  These generally focus on the 3 main macro-nutrients: carbohydrates, proteins and fats.  Some diets emphasize these 3 being equal, while others promote a drastic reduction or addition of a certain macronutrient.

The search for the one PERFECT diet is ongoing.

A 2007 Journal of the American Medical Association study compared 4 diets: Atkins (very low carbohydrate), Zone (low carbohydrate), LEARN (high carbohydrate) and Ornish (very high carbohydrate).  Researchers divided a group of over 300 overweight and obese premenopausal women into 4 groups and tracked their progress over 12 months.

They reported that the weight loss was higher for the Atkins group than the other 3 (which had no significant difference between them).  When comparing other outcomes such as cholesterol, body fat percentage, glucose and blood pressure, they found the Atkins group continued to be comparable or above the other 3.  Long term effects were not evaluated in this study.

A 2009 New England Journal of Medicine study yielded different results.  Researchers followed 800 people over 2 years after they were divided into one of four diets: Low-fat and average-protein, low-fat and high-protein, high-fat and average-protein, and high-fat and high protein.

Their data showed that all 4 diets yielded weight loss.  Despite differences in what macronutrient foods were emphasized, there was no significant difference between them.  This study also found that participants that attended group counseling sessions lost more weight than those who did not.  This demonstrates that behavioral, psychological and social factors play a role in weight loss.


How do you keep weight off?

A common struggle with weight loss is that after weight loss people tend to regain the weight they lost and sometimes even more.  In a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2010, researchers looked at weight loss maintenance and how to keep weight off after it’s been lost.

Close to 800 overweight adults in Europe ate a low-calorie diet to lose at least 8% of their initial body weight.  They were then divided into 5 groups: A low-protein and low-glycemic-index diet, a low-protein and high-glycemic-index diet, a high-protein and low-glycemic-index diet, a high-protein and high-glycemic-index diet, or a control diet.

Researchers wanted to see determine if protein and glycemic index were factors in weight loss management.  The study demonstrated that a “modest increase in protein” and a “modest reduction in the glycemic index” helped participants maintain their weight loss.


So what diet is best?

As these studies show, there is not a single “best” diet.  Many factors (including genetics, lifestyle and medical history) come into play for what is best for an individual.  While many may benefit from a macronutrient based diet, others do better on other dietary plans.  Many people find smaller changes easier to implement.

Remember the key across the board is to eat a variety of healthy, high quality foods – including plenty of fruits and vegetables, whole grains and healthy proteins.   If you want to lose weight, talk to your doctor of chiropractic at your next visit.  Discuss any health issues that may make a sudden change in diet problematic as well as how your lifestyle affects your eating habits.


SOURCE: The Best Diet: Quality Counts

By Harvard School of Public Health