A big new study tells us what we've all wanted to hear about food and dieting. Strap on the feed bag!
A few years ago, I wrote an article called The Eat as Much as You Want Diet.
The article was about how you really don't need to bother with counting calories if you just eat nutritionally dense foods. It doesn't matter if you eat low fat or low carb, the results would be pretty much the same and you'd lose body fat.
My reasoning was this: If you eat nutritionally high value (nutrient dense) foods, it's virtually impossible to overdo calories. If you optimize for high value, the calories take care of themselves. Moreover, eating this way makes you feel full a lot longer between meals, which makes it much harder to overeat.
The reason I'm bringing this up is that a new study – a very large study – serendipitously tested out my diet and found that it works.
Low Fat or Low Carb, Either Works
Lead researcher Christopher D. Gardner at the Stanford Prevention Research Center recruited 609 adults between the ages of 18 and 50. Each of them had a body mass index between 28 and 40, meaning they were overweight, if not obese.
The subjects were randomized to either a 12-month "healthy low fat" (HLF) or a "healthy low carb" (HLC) diet. The macronutrient breakdown for the HLF diet was 48% carbs, 29% fat, and 21% protein, while the breakdown for the HLC diet was 30% carbs, 45% fat, and 23% protein.
Eating "healthy" meant the participants were to cut back on added sugar, refined grains, and highly processed foods while concentrating on eating lots of vegetables and whole foods without worrying about portion sizes – almost identical to the recommendations I made in my "Eat as Much as You Want Diet."
After the year of dieting was up, the members of the low-carb group, on average, lost a bit over 13 pounds, while those on the low-fat group lost about 11.7 pounds. (That may not seem like much, but consider that their portion sizes weren't restricted and they weren't required to do any additional exercise.)
And, in what must seem like a Sunday punch to resolute anti-carb people everywhere, it didn't much matter if people ate low-fat or low-carb.
The Nutrient-Dense Powerhouses
In my original article, I gave some examples of what might constitute "nutrient-dense" food, and I used Harvard nutritionist Matt LaLonde's chart of nutrient density values. Unlike other similar charts, LaLonde took nutrients per serving and divided it by weight per serving so that foods could be on an equal footing when measured against each other.
Here's the original list. Don't let the minus values mess you up. It just means that the foods are high in certain nutrients but lacking or deficient in others. There are, after all, very few foods that "have it all" like organ meats.
Lalonde Nutrient Density Values
|Organ Meats and Oils||17|
|Herbs and Spices||17|
|Nuts and Seeds||10|
|Fish and Seafood||1|
|Eggs and Dairy||-0.6|
|Lamb, Veal, Raw Game||-1.2|
|Vegetables (Cooked, Canned)||-4.8|
|Plant Fats and Oils||-5.4|
|Animal Skin and Feet||-6.2|
|Refined and Processed Oils||-6.4|
|Animal Fats and Oils||-6.8|
Again, in my original article, I mentioned that perhaps the only drawback of the list was that it didn't take phytonutrients into account as much as it should. Since then, I've made it my mission to study these interesting, health-promoting chemicals, and I now recommend augmenting the diet with lots of the polyphenol and carotenoid-rich foods listed below (and yes, there's some overlap with LaLonde's list).
- Vegetables: Artichokes, potatoes, rhubarb, yellow onions, red cabbage, cherry tomatoes, leeks, broccoli, celery.
- Fruits: Berries, apples, apricots, plums, pears, grapes, cherries (the darker the fruit, the higher the polyphenol content).
- Whole Grains: Buckwheat, rye, oats, barley, corn, wheat, rice.
- Nuts, Seeds, Legumes: Black beans, white beans, pecans, almonds, walnuts, flaxseed, chestnuts, hazelnuts.
- Fats: Virgin olive oil, sesame seed oil, dark chocolate.
- Beverages: Coffee, tea, red wine, cocoa.
- Spices: Oregano, rosemary, soy sauce, cloves, peppermint, anise, celery seed, saffron, spearmint, thyme, basil, curry powder, ginger, cumin, cinnamon, garlic.
What To Do With This Info
The take-home point of my original article, backed up by the new research, is this:
- If people learned to eat nutrient-dense foods, their relationship with food would change. Calorie counting would die, as would all scurrilous diets. You'd eat what you need instead of what you want, or used to want. It would change the relationship overweight people have with food.
- They'd presumably eat only when they were actually hungry, and by eating nutrient-dense foods, they'd stay full much, much, longer and stave off hunger, which is the main impediment to any conventional diet.
- Christopher D. Gardner, PhD, et al. "Effect of Low-Fat vs Low-Carbohydrate Diet on 12-Month Weight Loss in Overweight Adults and the Association With Genotype Pattern or Insulin Secretion. The DIETFITS Randomized Clinical Trial," JAMA. 2018;319(7):667-679.