Eating healthy can feel like rocket science.
It seems every person you come across has a different recommendation for improving your diet, and they’ll often be in direct conflict with one another. Some say avoid fat at all costs. Others say carbs are the devil. Some insist you need more meat, while others swear by raw veganism. One friend tells you how great their recent juice cleanse was. Another says it’s all about counting calories.
We often make nutrition vastly more complex than it needs to be.
Earlier this year, I wrote an article entitled 3 Simple Commandments That Can Guide Almost Anyone to Greater Fitness.
Included was a review of a recent study from the Stanford School of Medicine that examined how a simple shift in eating philosophy resulted in similar weight loss among participants despite significant differences in age, genetics, carb intake, dietary fat intake, and insulin levels.
The study included 609 participants (about half men, half women) between the ages of 18 and 50.
Half of the 609 participants were placed on a low-carb, high-fat diet, while the other half was placed on a high-carb, low fat diet.
The participants were told to eat as much as they want and not to worry about counting calories or controlling portion sizes. But most importantly, both groups were instructed to eat “as little or no added sugar, if possible, as little or no refined grain, if possible, and as many vegetables as you can.”
Each group was instructed to maintain their recommended diet for one year. Both groups experienced similar weight loss over the course of those 12 months, with the average participant losing 13 pounds. There were also no associations between genotype pattern or baseline insulin levels and odds of success on either diet.
“We advised them to diet in a way that didn’t make them feel hungry or deprived—otherwise it’s hard to maintain the diet in the long run,” Christopher Gardner, PhD, professor of medicine and lead author of the study said in a release on the findings.
“On both sides, we heard from people who had lost the most weight that we had helped them change their relationship to food, and that now they were more thoughtful about how they ate…I feel like we owe it to Americans to be smarter than to just say ‘eat less.’”
In all my research on the topics of diet and nutrition, the recommendations provided to the participants in this study might be the most practical and valuable I’ve seen. There’s no calorie or macronutrient counting involved. People are encouraged to eat until they’re satisfied rather than a slave to portion sizes. And no one type of food is explicitly forbidden.
Again, the key recommendation was to eat “as little or no added sugar, if possible, as little or no refined grain, if possible, and as many vegetables as you can.”
For the vast majority of people, if they can cut down on the added sugar, cut down on the refined grains (see this page for a detailed explanation of what fits this bill), and eat more vegetables, their diet and overall wellness will significantly improve.
Because by following these three simple guidelines, you address perhaps the three biggest issues in the modern American diet.
1. Too Much Added Sugar
Added sugars (defined as “sugars or caloric sweeteners added to foods or beverages during processing or preparation”) are perhaps the most harmful ingredient in the modern American diet, largely because we eat them in absurd quantities.
The American Heart Association recommends women consume no more than 25 grams of added sugar per day while men should consume no more than 36 grams a day. In 2012, the average American adult consumed 77 grams of added sugars per day. While that number has likely come down a tad, odds are it’s still well beyond healthy limits.
One problem is that added sugar is much more omni-present than most know. For example, one Nutri-Grain bar, a snack many people might see as “healthy,” contains 12 grams of it, while a serving of Sweet Baby Ray’s Original Barbecue Sauce contains 16 grams.
Luckily, the new nutrition facts label requires manufacturers to list how much added sugar is present in their products.
2. Too Many Refined Grains
The Whole Grain Council defines refined grains as “grains that are not whole, because they are missing one or more of their three key parts (bran, germ, or endosperm).”
Refined grains are lower in valuable nutrients—such as fiber, magnesium and iron—than their whole grain counterparts. They’re also a staple of many ultra-processed foods, a category of foods which have been heavily altered during the manufacturing process. These foods are often high in calories and contain few valuable nutrients.
The average American gets more than half their daily calories from ultra-processed foods, and ultra-processed foods tend to possess qualities which drive us to overindulge (more on this later). In my opinion, refined grains aren’t quite as bad as added sugars, but the average American could certainly benefit from replacing many of the refined grains in their diet with whole grains.
3. Too Few Vegetables
Americans could stand to eat more produce in general, but it’s veggies where we really fall short. A 2017 report from the CDC found only 1 in 10 Americans consume the recommended daily amount of vegetables.
Eating more veggies (provided they’re not deep-fried or drowning in a sugar-ladened sauce) is a great way to consume fewer overall calories yet more beneficial nutrients. Veggies generally help our bodies run more efficiently and our minds think more clearly. Most veggies are also high in fiber, something many Americans sorely need more of.
In the time since the Stanford study was published, more research has come out that backs its overall sentiment.
A small-scale trial conducted at the NIH Clinical Center examined how 20 healthy adult volunteers responded to both an ultra-processed diet and a minimally processed diet over the course of one month. From Science Daily:
In random order for two weeks on each diet, (researchers) provided (participants) with meals made up of ultra-processed foods or meals of minimally processed foods. For example, an ultra-processed breakfast might consist of a bagel with cream cheese and turkey bacon, while the unprocessed breakfast was oatmeal with bananas, walnuts, and skim milk.
The ultra-processed and unprocessed meals had the same amounts of calories, sugars, fiber, fat, and carbohydrates, and participants could eat as much or as little as they wanted.
On the ultra-processed diet, people ate about 500 calories more per day than they did on the unprocessed diet. They also ate faster on the ultra-processed diet and gained weight, whereas they lost weight on the unprocessed diet. Participants, on average, gained 0.9 kilograms, or 2 pounds, while they were on the ultra-processed diet and lost an equivalent amount on the unprocessed diet.
Again, the meals the participants were served had the exact same amounts of calories, sugars, fiber, fat and carbohydrates. But something about the makeup of the ultra-processed meals led participants to eat more, eat faster and gain more weight. Based on the description of the meals, the former likely contained many added sugars and refined carbs yet few veggies, and vice versa for the latter.
500 calories per day is no small margin. Over time, that could result in dramatic weight gain. This study also points to the possible synergistic superiority of the nutrients naturally bundled together in minimally processed foods compared to ones artificially brought together during the manufacturing of ultra-processed foods.
Another study, which was published online in the International Journal of Cardiology, examined how the effects of three different healthy diets impact a biomarker that directly reflects heart cell damage and inflammation. Each diet emphasized a different macronutrient (either carbohydrates, proteins or unsaturated fat), but all included at least four to six servings of fruits and vegetables a day and were low in unhealthy saturated fat, cholesterol and sodium.
Researchers found all three diets “reduced heart cell damage and inflammation, consistent with improved health health.”
Corresponding author Stephen Juraschek, MD, PhD, Assistant Professor of Medicine at BIDMC and Harvard Medical School, told Science Daily, “It’s possible that macronutrients matter less than simply eating healthy foods…Our findings support flexibility in food selection for people attempting to eat a healthier diet and should make it easier.”
When someone brags about the trendy diet they used to lose weight, it’s often accompanied by a lot of pseudoscience. In reality, much of their success can likely be attributed to three key factors: they ate less added sugar, they consumed fewer refined grains, and they downed more vegetables.
If you’re able to do that, everything else tends to fall into place.
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