Is it all about the calories?

Does which foods you eat matter in weight loss?  I don’t think any aspect of obesity and weight loss is more confusing, or more responsible for people’s muddled thinking and poor choices in approaches to taking and keeping weight off.  Most of the answers we’re given to this question fall roughly into what seem like two sharply contrasting camps.  The “it’s all about the calories” camp (be warned, this link brings to you a nasty little article) suggests it doesn’t really matter what you eat, you just need to eat small-enough amounts of it to not exceed the calories you’re burning.  The “eat healthier foods” camp suggests that you will lose weight if you emphasize certain foods over others–some push fruits and vegetables, others “less-processed” foods, others less-calorie-dense foods, others low carbs, others low fat, and so forth.

Here’s my take on it. (I’ve been interviewing many, many respected experts in the obesity field and reading quite a lot of studies and articles, so I’m not entirely shooting from the hip here, or at least not more than anyone else. Consider this a synthesis of what I’ve been finding out.)  The bottom line is that both camps are sort of right, but they’re both a little misleading, too. It’s true, you can lose weight eating anything if you keep portions small enough, and you can gain wait eating only vegetables if you eat enough of them. But most people are indeed more likely to keep the weight off if they lose it by emphasizing certain types of foods. That’s because some foods more than others tend to push the various physiological and perhaps psychological buttons that will make it harder for you to keep control of your calorie intake. In the end, you’ll still have to take in fewer calories than you’re burning–but most people will find it easier to do that with some menus than with others.

So which foods should the would-be weight loser emphasize? There’s a certain amount of disagreement on this question, to be sure, but a rough consensus of evidence and expert opinion favors cutting down significantly on sugar and refined carbs (like non-whole-wheat bread and pasta), taking it easy on fats (especially saturated fat, for other health reasons), eating good amounts of relatively lean protein (especially fish, chicken, and soy, prepared without much oil or butter, but beans, wheat gluten, egg whites, whey and pork can be good sources of lean protein, too), and eating lots of vegetables and reasonable amounts of fruit and other foods high in fiber.  Most experts don’t advocate ultra-low-carb diets (or even counsel cutting down much on complex carbs like whole-wheat foods), and most don’t think an ultra-low-fat diet is worth the trouble.  There are three main weight-control benefits to these recommended foods: They tend to be less calorie-dense, so they feel more filling per calorie and it’s easier to meter how many calories you’re taking in compared to a small, dense calorie-bomb like a piece of candy or fried chicken; they’re less intensely stimulating to your pleasure systems, so you’ll be less likely to feel compelled to pig out on them; and they tend to enter the bloodstream at reasonable rates, avoiding the blood-sugar spike-and-plummet effect you get from eating simple carbs that can lead to intense appetite swings.

Now having said all this, I’d like to point out that while eating “healthier” foods is a helpful and for most people important element of keeping weight off, I don’t think it’s necessarily the most important element, and it’s absolutely not the only element, as is often implied by some weight-loss gurus.  Most people will not be able to keep much if any weight off just by trying to take in more healthy food, if everything else they do and everything else that’s going on around them otherwise remains the same. For most people keeping weight off requires a full-court press via a “behavioral” approach, something I’ll be talking a lot about here and elsewhere. Part of that approach also involves finding out which healthier foods work best for you in terms of being as satisfying as possible without pushing your appetite and cravings buttons. And it also involves being smart about the way you introduce these foods into your daily menu and make enjoyable habits out of eating them, and about how you regulate your intake of these healthier foods as well as of those less-healthy foods you may also want to take in in order to have a satisfying diet.

Does all this seem like a lot of work to figure out, put into action and maintain? Well, it can be, but if you get good guidance it shouldn’t be all that hard. Even if it is a lot of work, the benefits people get out of losing excess weight in terms of their health and how they feel almost always seem worth the trouble. And if you do the behavioral approach right, losing and keeping off weight–especially if you lose it slowly, and try don’t lose a large percentage of your body weight–need never be hugely demanding or uncomfortable, and in fact ought to be highly satisfying and in many ways enjoyable.

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