Counting calories not key to weight loss

Frederick Owens
February 22, 2018

This finding contradicts a large body of work that suggests variations in genetic make-up could make it easier for some to lose weight than others on certain diets, and that a person's insulin secretion may explain differences in weight loss. Some people follow low-carb diets and some believe low-fat diet could help them to shed the pounds but a new study suggests that both sides are right.

Lead study author Christopher Gardner, the director of nutrition studies at the Stanford Prevention Research Center, noted that the point of the study wasn't to compare a low-fat diet to a low-carb one to see which was best for weight loss, as many previous studies have done. "It's because we're all very different, and we're just starting to understand the reasons for this diversity. Maybe we shouldn't be asking what's the best diet, but what's the best diet for whom?" said Dr Gardener, who's report elucidated "there was no significant difference in weight change between a healthy low-fat diet vs a healthy low-carbohydrate diet".

Professor Gardner recruited 609 participants between the ages of 18 and 50 for his tests. About half were men and half were women. The participants were initially instructed to reduce their total fat or carbohydrate intake to 20 g/day during the first 8 weeks of intervention, and then slowly added back either fat or carbs into their diet, not surpassing the lowest level of sustainable intake each participant could individually maintain. You might also know of someone who had weight loss success on one of these diets and another who didn't lose a single pound.

They found both groups lost weight equally well, averaging around 6kg.

Within the 12 month period, an average of 13 pounds were lost per person - that's just under 6 kgs - although some participants lost up 60 pounds (27.5 kgs) while others gained 20 pounds (9 kgs). The low-carb group was trained to choose nutritious foods like olive oil, salmon, avocados, hard cheeses, vegetables, nut butters, nuts and seeds, and grass-fed and pasture-raised animal foods.

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Researchers also homed in on genetics to discover if biology would encourage an individual's body to favour a low-carbohydrate diet or a low-fat diet, but they found no associations between gene patterns and a propensity to succeed on either diet.

Gardner emphasizes that it's all about healthy low-fat and low-carb diets.

For you the reader, the biggest takeaways would be that there isn't a clear-cut victor between low-fat and low-carb.

"We made sure to tell everybody, regardless of which diet they were on, to go to the farmer's market, and don't buy processed convenience food crap". As such, Gardener advises people to eat less sugar, less refined flour and as many vegetables as possible. He said the most important message of the study was that a "high quality diet" produced substantial weight loss and that the percentage of calories from fat or carbs did not matter, which is consistent with other studies, including many that show that eating healthy fats and carbs can help prevent heart disease, diabetes and other diseases. They also cut their daily caloric intake by about 500 calories.

Dr. Walter Willett, chairman of the nutrition department at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, said the study did not support a "precision medicine" approach to nutrition, but that future studies would be likely to look at many other genetic factors that could be significant. "I'm hoping that we can come up with signatures of sorts", he said. I feel we owe it to people to be smarter than to just say "eat less".

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