21 July 11 Is Calorie Counting Still the Way to Achieve Success?

A new study published in the New England Journal of Medicine is taking a crack at disproving long-held beliefs that calories are all the same, and that eating less and exercising more coupled with "everything in moderation" are going to get you slimmer and fitter. The study, performed by five public health and nutrition experts from Harvard University, followed 120,877 well-educated men and women (none of whom were obese or had any chronic health issues at the start of the study) for 20 years (1986-2006). Researchers checked in with these individuals every four years and asked them to complete questionnaires about their weight, eating habits, lifestyle, etc.

The study showed that participants gained an average of 3.35 pounds during each four-year interval, and researchers linked weight gain to the types/quality of foods participants ate on a daily basis, among other things. The major daily food culprits listed in the study were:
  • Potato chips (+1.69 pound gain over the average)
  • Potatoes (+1.28 pounds gain)
  • Sugar-sweetened beverages (+1 pound gain)
  • *Dairy products (low-fat and full-fat), interestingly, were shown to have a neutral effect on weight loss/gain.
On the flip side, researchers considered what healthy foods contributed to weight loss or reduced weight gain over each four-year period. These daily good food choices were:
  • Vegetables (-.22 pound less than the average)
  • Whole grains (-.37 pound less)
  • Fruits (-.49 pound less)
  • Nuts (-.57 pound less)
  • Yogurt (-.82 pound less)
From these two lists, it could be said that the best two food changes you could make to improve your diet would be to eliminate potato chips and increase your consumption of yogurt. But is it really that simple?

The study also considered other daily lifestyle choices in relation to weight changes. Notable relationships include:
  • Regular exercise (-1.76 pound less than the average)
  • Alcohol consumption (+.41 pound per drink per day)
  • Smoking (+5.17 pounds gain for new quitters; +.14 pound gain for former smokers)
  • Sleep (increased weight gain for those who got <6 hours or >8 hours sleep per night - you can sleep too much or too little!)
  • Television watching (+.31 pound gain per hour per day)
When discussing the results of the study in a New York Times article, the lead author of the study, Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian, said, "This study shows that conventional wisdom - to eat everything in moderation, eat fewer calories and avoid fatty foods - isn't the best approach…What you eat makes quite a difference. Just counting calories won't matter much unless you look at the kinds of calories you're eating."

Specifically, Dr. Mozaffarian aimed at proving that calories are not just calories, and there are, in fact, good calories and bad calories. This is where the study's underlying statement is made that simple calorie counting is not the answer for weight loss and eating healthy foods is. However, what may be overlooked is that even too many "good" calories can lead to long-term weight gain. So doesn't that just make everyone right? Weight loss has been shown to have a direct relation to "calories in versus calories out," but nutrition has been shown to be helpful in keeping weight off. It's why so many "gimmicked" diets don't work over the long haul - because some (most?) aren't nutritionally sound or sustainable.

Even our own consulting dietitian, Kathy Isacks, MPS, RD, who exercises six days a week, says, "I already eat the foods the study found to be related to be beneficial and I still gain weight if I don’t track. The problem is I still eat too many of the good things over time when I don’t track. My calories intake gradually drifts upwards and exceeds my calories expenditure." However, she also fully understands that calorie quality matters and has written a very informative article on the matter. See "Foods to Meet Nutrient Needs" on MyNetDiary.com.

The bottom line: it's all important. Healthy foods matter. Portions matter. Sleep matters. Thankfully, MyNetDiary members have access to a great tool that goes beyond tracking calories. It allows you to track a complete nutritional snapshot of your diet and encourages healthy lifestyle choices based on ADA guidelines. How many times have you seen MyNetDiary's recommendation to increase your fiber intake at breakfast? We hope you find it useful to achieving your success.

Ryan Newhouse

Ryan Newhouse is the Marketing Director for MyNetDiary and writes for a variety of publications. He wants you to check out MyNetDiary on Instagram!

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Disclaimer: The information provided here does not constitute medical advice. If you are seeking medical advice, please visit your healthcare provider or medical professional.

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Weight Gain/Unwanted Weight Gain

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