Why counting calories may not help you lose weight

Shed pounds without eating less. It sounds like the tagline of a soon-to-be-illegal diet pill. But that's the finding of a new report by the Journal of the Medical Association (JAMA).

The findings are not without a catch: in order to reap the benefits of this non-diet you need to eat whole foods, primarily cooked at home. No more reduced calorie cookies or low carb chips, just good old fashioned real food.

Researchers at Stanford University wanted to test whether certain diets, e.g. low fat or low carb, work better for certain people depending on their genetic make-up. In recent years, "DNA-based" diets that tout high success rates based on individualized plans have gained popularity. They can cost $200-300 with plenty of potential add ons like food delivery services.

The study included 600 overweight or obese women and men (according to their BMI) ages 18-50. The team looked at the key genetic markers that influence the metabolism of fat, carbohydrates, and insulin secretion. Participants were then randomly placed into two groups, one low fat and one low carb. And then things got interesting.

Unlike traditional diets, the participants were not told to count calories or measure portion size. Both groups were coached to eat high quality, nutritious foods, such as olive oil, nuts, salmon, and avocados for the low carb participants, and beans, whole grains, fruit, and lean grass fed beef for the low fat. They all attended classes on nutrition and were asked to cook at home as much as possible.

Lead researcher, Christopher D. Gardner, the director of nutrition studies at the Stanford Prevention Research Center, told the New York Times, "We told them all that we wanted them to minimize added sugar and refined grains and eat more vegetables and whole foods. We said, 'Don't go out and buy a low-fat brownie just because it says low fat. And those low-carb chips — don't buy them, because they're still chips and that's gaming the system.'" They were told they could eat as much as they wanted in order to stave off hunger. Gardner said this approach was unique.

After a few months, some of the participants were asking at what point in the study they were start cutting back on calories—the focus on calories had been drummed into them by previous diets. The report points out that calorie counting is ubiquitous, even the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises people trying to lose weight to "write down the foods you eat and the beverages you drink, plus the calories they have, each day."

After a year, the study found that members of both groups lost a significant amount of weight and saw improvements in their blood sugar, blood pressure, waist size, and body fat levels. On average, the members of the low fat group lost nearly 12 pounds and the low-carb group lost just over 13 pounds. From eating as much as they wanted.

It's not that calories are meaningless, in fact, by eating nutrient-dense foods most participants did reduce the overall calories they consumed. However, the mindset shifted. "I think one place we go wrong is telling people to figure out how many calories they eat and then telling them to cut back on 500 calories, which makes them miserable," Gardner said. "We really need to focus on that foundational diet, which is more vegetables, more whole foods, less added sugar and less refined grains."

Speaking with the New York Times, Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian, a cardiologist and dean of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University who was not a part of the study, said, "This is the road map to reducing the obesity epidemic in the United States. It's time for the U.S. and other national policies to stop focusing on calories and calorie counting."

Another result was that the genetic makeup of the participants didn't affect how much weight they lost on a particular diet. Some people lost as much as 50 pounds and some did gain weight. The people who experienced the most weight loss reported they had "changed their relationship to food." They learned how to identify the most nutrient rich foods, enjoy cooking and avoid grabbing fast food meals—to move away from obsessing over the calories listed on the labels of convenience foods and menus to eating delicious, satisfying, healthy meals.

In addition to DNA-based programs, many popular diets have restrictions that are tough to follow over the long run and may be downright unhealthy. U.S. News and World Reports' annual ranking of diets puts the trendy Keto Diet, Dukkan Diet, Whole 30 Diet, Body Reset Diet, and Atkins Diet at the very bottom of its list. The top diet according to its expert panel? The Mediterranean Diet which contains an abundance of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, beans, spices, healthy fats like nuts and olive oil, seafood, and poultry, eggs, and dairy in moderation. Top it off with a bit of red wine and sweets for special occasions. No calorie counting, no carb watching, no DNA testing required, just sensible, flavorful eating.

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