The February 20, 2018 New York Times article The Key to Weight Loss Is Diet Quality, Not Quantity, a New Study Finds perfectly illustrates the “clutter” in the weight loss world that makes America the world leader in obesity.
The article is misleading reporting at its best.
If you aren’t a careful reader who approaches everything you see/hear/read in the media with great skepticism you would probably read this article and conclude that CALORIES DON’T MATTER as long as you consume “high quality” foods.
Let’s look at a few quotes to illustrate (I added bold formatting):
[The study] found that people 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.
“This is the road map to reducing the obesity epidemic in the United States,” said Dr. Mozaffarian, who was not involved in the new study. “It’s time for U.S. and other national policies to stop focusing on calories and calorie counting.”
[The study] also suggests that health authorities should shift away from telling the public to obsess over calories and instead encourage Americans to avoid processed foods that are made with refined starches and added sugar, like bagels, white bread, refined flour and sugary snacks and beverages…
The new study stands apart from many previous weight-loss trials because it did not set extremely restrictive carbohydrate, fat or caloric limits on people and emphasized that they focus on eating whole or “real” foods — as much as they needed to avoid feeling hungry.
Dr. Gardner [one of the researchers] said many of the people in the study were surprised — and relieved — that they did not have to restrict or even think about calories.
Yet the new study found that after one year of focusing on food quality, not calories, the two groups lost substantial amounts of weight.
Do calories matter?
NOW, cover those quotes above so that you can’t see them for a moment. Go ahead – don’t cheat. Does this article and the underlying study say that the number of calories one consumes isn’t important?
Would it surprise you if I said it actually doesn’t say that? It doesn’t. It implies it with lots of deflection and misdirection, but it doesn’t actually say it.
What DOES it say about calories? It denounces “obsessing over”, “worrying about”, “focusing on”, and “thinking about” calories.
OK. Fine. Don’t “obsess over”, “worry about”, “focus on”, or “think about” calories. But if you eat too many of them you WILL gain weight!
But 99% of readers will miss these subtle qualifiers. They will say, “I heard that a new scientific study has debunked the old calorie counting, calories-in vs calories-out model…”
Such readers will attempt to comply with the newly discovered findings of the study. They will go to their favorite casual dining restaurant and order the grilled chicken salad. This, they think, is “quality” food since it’s “whole”, “natural”, “unrefined”, and “unprocessed”, as prescribed by the article. BUT, it could have 1500+ CALORIES (probably more than 1000 of those calories are dressing, cheese, croutons, seeds, nuts, and bacon).
Americans obsessing over calories?
Another claim of the article is that Americans are calorie-obsessed, and that the prevailing weight loss wisdom calls for calorie restriction.
Anyone who has ever been on a diet knows that the standard prescription for weight loss is to reduce the amount of calories you consume… Calorie counting has long been ingrained in the prevailing nutrition and weight loss advice…
In 1975 these statements were true. In 2018 they aren’t even close to true.
Reducing caloric intake has not been the mainstream “standard prescription” or “prevailing weight loss advice” in America since around 1985. In fact, now it’s exactly the opposite. The thinking presented in this NYT article has been the highly dominant popular opinion that whole time.
OK, so they cite the CDC’s recommendation that one monitor caloric intake in order to lose weight. But what popular nutrition plan in the past 25 years recommends calorie counting?
The Atkins, Zone, Paleo, and Keto diets all range from not mentioning calories at all to flat out denouncing the need to monitor or control caloric intake.
And you would be hard-pressed to find much in popular media advocating counting calories. Probably more than 90% of recent books, articles (like this NYT article), bloggers, or Youtube nutrition experts de-emphasize calories and over-emphasize “quality”.
Poll your friends and acquaintances. Ask them what they think one needs to do to lose weight? When they say “diet and exercise” ask “Specifically what KIND of diet?” My own anecdotal observations are that at least 9 out of 10 people I talk to about this subject believe that calorie count is unimportant.
AND IT SHOWS. My own visual observations made while walking around in public provide further evidence that very few people in America are “obsessing over”, “worrying about”, “focusing on”, or “thinking about” calories. Or maybe they are doing those things, but they ARE ALSO EATING LOTS OF CALORIES.
What does the study REALLY show?
OK, so now that we’ve stripped away the NYT’s qualifying words, what was this study trying to learn? What did it actually find?
It’s REALLY not about calories at all. In fact, the word (“calorie”, “calories”) doesn’t even appear in the abstract (summary). It’s a test trying to determine whether there is a difference in weight loss between low-carb and low-fat diets.
There was one significant difference between this experiment and other low-fat vs low-carb experiments.
In this experiment they refrained from prescribing any quantities and focused on “healthy” fats and carbs. So they didn’t prescribe a fixed calorie limit and carb and fat percentages. Instead they just taught one group how to eat a healthy low fat diet and the other group how to eat a healthy low carb diet.
The subjects of the experiment were simply “trained to eat nutrient-dense, minimally processed whole foods, cooked at home whenever possible”.
I state many places on this site that many diets “work” because they effectively trick people into consuming fewer calories.
For example, the Paleo diet does not advocate monitoring calories. But it does provide a long list of encouraged foods and discouraged foods. If you abide by those lists, you almost surely will consume fewer calories and consequently lose weight.
I also say many times elsewhere on this site that you do NOT NEED TO COUNT CALORIES IF “cutting back” and “eating healthier” works. But if it DOESN’T WORK, it’s because you’re still eating too many calories. Then it becomes necessary to COUNT so that you can learn where you’re getting that surplus.
But, back to what the study ACTUALLY FOUND. It found that as long as subjects adhered to “healthy, high quality foods”, the low fat and low carb diets yielded the same weight loss. Sorry Keto Diet people 🙂
Counting calories doesn’t work, BUT…
There is a very consistent pattern in almost every book or article on weight loss in the past 20 years. For the first 75% they often state that counting calories doesn’t work, isn’t good, is even harmful, etc. But then, USUALLY ONCE, somewhere after the 75% point there is the quiet little disclaimer. It usually starts with something like “It’s not that the calorie count doesn’t matter, but…”
The NYT article follows this pattern to a tee. Its quiet whisper is in the second-to-last paragraph. What it says there renders meaningless almost everything it previously implies:
Dr. Gardner said 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.
Please, re-read that at least 10 times!
So maybe the subjects didn’t “obsess over”, “worry about”, “focus on”, or “think about” calories, and maybe they didn’t set “extremely restrictive … caloric limits”, BUT they “ended up consuming fewer calories”.
They consumed fewer calories and they lost weight. That’s by far the most important thing you need to know! In fact, it’s the ONLY thing you need to know relative to losing weight. If you consume fewer calories than you burn, you lose weight.
Yes, it is GREAT if you can figure out how to consume fewer calories without meticulously counting calories. But if you still gain weight, YOU NEED TO COUNT CALORIES. If you’re not losing weight it’s because you’re consuming too many calories. The obsessing over, worrying about, focusing on, and thinking about calories is optional.
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