If you've always thought the best way to lose weight was to count calories, think again. It's probably not your best strategy for long-term weight loss. At least that's what a study conducted by researchers at Tufts University has revealed. The researchers found that making small, consistent changes in the types of protein and carbohydrate-containing foods is the most effective way to keep weight gain in check over the long haul.
The Tufts researchers analyzed more than 16 years of data from three long-term studies and found that — no surprise — diets filled with refined grains, red (and processed) meat, starches and sugars were associated with more weight gain. In contrast, they also found that increased consumption of yogurt, seafood, skinless chicken and nuts was associated with weight loss.
Eating other dairy items, including full-fat cheese and whole milk, didn't contribute to either weight gain or loss. However, researchers found that consuming low-fat dairy led to increased consumption of carbs.
So should we ditch our calorie-counting books and apps?
Not entirely — but counting calories can be an exercise in futility, says Emily Hein, RDN, LD, a registered dietitian nutritionist in Dallas. "Let's say you're limiting your calorie count to 1,200 per day," she says. "You can spend your calorie 'budget' entirely on Oreos, but that's not a smart move. What you want to do, instead, is pick nutrient-dense sources of food that offer you a well-proportioned balance of macronutrients, carbs, fat and protein."
In addition, keeping tabs on just the calories you're consuming without looking at the bigger picture of how nutrient-rich your foods are can be self-sabotaging.
"When people feel restricted by calorie count alone, they tend to rebel," Hein adds. "Then, if they veer off their diet and go above their count on a 'splurge' day, they tend to ditch their diet entirely."
That's why we should consider calorie-counting as a short-term strategy, advises Georgie Fear, RD, a Vancouver based professional nutrition coach. "Counting calories certainly helps in learning portion control, but what the Tufts study shows us is that those people who focused on nourishing foods instead of just the calories contained in those foods stayed fuller longer and experienced weight loss that lasted."
Making better food choices is, ultimately, the smartest long-term strategy, Fear says.
For example, reach for Greek yogurt and fruit instead of a cereal bar. For the same 200 calories, you'll get more health-promoting nutrients from the yogurt-fruit combo and it will help you lose weight, too.
"It's not because the calorie count is different but because yogurt and fruit will better satisfy your appetite," Fear says. Tip: Aim to pair fruit with plain Greek yogurt. If that's too sour for your taste, drizzle in a bit of honey. At four to five grams of sugar, that's way less sweetener than you'll find in a pre-sweetened yogurt.
In the end, if you're still intent on calorie counting, pay attention to the foods that give you more satiety for the calories, Fear says.
"If you're limiting your calories to 1,800 per day to lose weight, but you're so hungry you can't manage it, you won't be able to sustain your game plan long-term," Fear says. "By sticking to higher protein meals and snacks, you'll more easily achieve the calorie totals you're trying to maintain — and you'll ultimately be following a diet you can stick with — for good."
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