When it comes to weight gain, extra pounds tend to sneak up on us until one day we are suddenly unable to button our favorite jeans. New research suggests that paying attention to that gradual weight gain by making moderate adjustments to our eating patterns over time, rather than just counting calories, may be the key to losing weight or keeping it off.
The trick seems to be paying attention to the types of protein and carbohydrates you eat on a regular basis. Researchers from Tuft University’s School of Nutrition Science and Policy followed 120,000 women and men for more than 16 years to learn what dietary habits helped people maintain a healthy weight. They found that eating certain types of food on regular basis not only made it easier to lose weight, but also kept people from gaining weight in the first place.
The study adds to existing evidence that eating lots of refined carbohydrates, starches and sugars — foods that swiftly raise blood sugar — leads to weight gain. The Tufts study is the first research to show refined carbohydrate intake is related to weight gain over many years.
“There is mounting scientific evidence that diets including less low-quality carbohydrates, such as white breads, potatoes and sweets, and higher in protein-rich foods may be more efficient for weight loss,” said study author Jessica Smith, Ph.D., a research fellow at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in a university interview. “We wanted to know how that might apply to preventing weight gain in the first place.”
The researchers found that several eating patterns had an impact on weight over the years:
- Eating increasing amounts of red meat and processed meat (cold cuts, bacon and similar foods) was most strongly associated with weight gain.
- Foods such as yogurt, seafood, skinless chicken and nuts were most strongly associated with weight loss – the more people ate, the less weight they gained.
- Increasing other dairy products, including full-fat cheese, whole milk and low-fat milk, did not significantly relate to either weight gain or weight loss. Study results also showed that when people ate low-fat dairy products, they tended to compensate by eating more refined carbohydrates, suggesting that full-fat dairy might help some people maintain a healthy weight better than low or no-fat options.
The study authors also found that certain combinations of food were likely to pile on the pounds. Eating large amounts of red meat, for instance, along with refined carbohydrates like white bread increased weight gain over several years, while eating red meat with vegetables contributed to less weight gain.
Consuming fish, nuts, and other foods associated with weight loss along with refined carbohydrates also decreased the weight loss effect of the heathier fare. Foods like eggs and cheese did not appear to cause people to gain weight, unless they were eaten with refined carbohydrates. The study findings suggest that following the guidelines of plans such as the Mediterranean Diet will reduce weight gain.
“Our study adds to growing new research that counting calories is not the most effective strategy for long-term weight management and prevention,” said senior author Dariush Mozaffarian, M.D., Dr.P.H., dean of the Friedman School. “Some foods help prevent weight gain; others make it worse. Most interestingly, the combination of foods seems to make a big difference.
“Our findings suggest we should not only emphasize specific protein-rich foods like fish, nuts and yogurt to prevent weight gain, but also focus on avoiding refined grains, starches and sugars in order to maximize the benefits of these healthful protein-rich foods, create new benefits for other foods like eggs and cheese, and reduce the weight gain associated with [red] meats.”
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