Is it carbs, fats, calories, or genes in dieting? Try quality food in moderation

Rigorous, reliable research on diet and nutrition is not common, so it’s worth paying close attention to the results of an $8-million, year-long study conducted at Stanford University with more than 600 test subjects. Its recommendations are filled — in a good way — with common sense and moderation.

The New York Times reported of the study, funded by the National Institutes of Health, the Nutrition Group and others, that its findings will help debunk some long-held notions about dieting — and some diet fads. Here’s the core of the newly published work’s key findings, according to the newspaper:

[P]eople who cut back on added sugar, refined grains and highly processed foods while concentrating on eating plenty of vegetables and whole foods — without worrying about counting calories or limiting portion sizes — lost significant amounts of weight over the course of a year. The strategy worked for people whether they followed diets that were mostly low in fat or mostly low in carbohydrates. And their success did not appear to be influenced by their genetics or their insulin-response to carbohydrates, a finding that casts doubt on the increasingly popular idea that different diets should be recommended to people based on their DNA makeup or on their tolerance for carbs or fat.

The “DIETFITS,” randomized clinical trial is just one study, which followed its overweight San Francisco-area subjects, men and women, ages 18 to 50, for a year. The work has its limits, as does all diet research involving humans — all their bodily functions can’t, for example, be easily monitored 24/7, they can’t include a starved or deprived control group, and all the complex factors that affect health and nutrition can’t be controlled.

But educators and diet experts worked with study participants, divided into “healthy” low carb and low-fat groups, and helped to get them to eat differently and better, measuring their results.

Two things worth noting: Participants were not told to increase their exercise or physical activities, and most did not. Researchers aren’t tracking their weight loss or gain beyond the study’s year. These points may have significance to some because exercise alone isn’t a sound way to lose weight, and weight loss is tough to sustain.

But, as experts quoted by the New York Times emphasized, the Stanford study offers important guidance to the weight-conscious about keeping calorie counting in context, because the long-emphasized intake measurements and fussy tracking of them may not be the alpha and omega of smart eating. Calorie counts have become political flash points when advocates have pushed for them to be posted and displayed on foods sold in groceries or served in restaurants. Electronic devices, software, and apps have burgeoned to help calorie-conscious consumers track their numbers.

Christopher D. Gardner, the director of nutrition studies at the Stanford Prevention Research Center who led the big diet study, had good sense to offer about calories and diet, telling the newspaper:

It is not that calories don’t matter. After all, both groups ultimately ended up consuming fewer calories on average by the end of the study, even though they were not conscious of it. The point is that they did this by focusing on nutritious whole foods that satisfied their hunger.

For those ready to eat up yet more information about this work, it’s worth checking out reports on it from the online information sites Stat and Vox. The varied emphases in the three news stories (between these two and The New York Times) may offer a clue about the ubiquity of consumers’ hunger (pun intended) to try different weight-loss approaches. Vox dives into the study’s insights on whether it’s carbs or fats that makes Americans heavy, while Stat looks at how the research, for now, takes some froth out of the hype for “precision” dieting — the idea that genetic testing or types might be decisive in determining how individual consumers might eat in most healthy fashion.

In my practice, I see the major harms that patients suffer while seeking medical services, and I have come to know all too well how they, and we all, struggle with the toll of excess weight. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 36 percent of adults and 17 percent of children in this country are obese, a chronic health bane that contributes to cancers, heart and lung diseases, diabetes, and more.

Big Food — corporate interests raking in huge profits, whether from fast food and chain restaurants or the making and processing of foods or the selling of sugary sodas and other drinks — aren’t keeping your health or mine at their fore. Their efforts may be helping to make us poorer and sicker. We, instead, all need to eat sensibly and well but in moderation, while also exercising regularly. That may sound like simple stuff, recommendations that might not require $8 million in research to back it up. But when science merges with common sense, it can be life changing and lifesaving, right?

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