We’ve been saying for years that the key to weight loss is a total lifestyle approach. And today, newspaper headlines across the country are saying it too. A landmark study on dieting and weight loss has found that the calories-in versus calories-out equation is the single most important bit of math in weight control. Not counting carbs or restricting fat – just moderate eating and exercise, plain and simple.
The study, just published in the New England Journal of Medicine, compared four diets modeled after popular eating plans like Atkins and the Mediterranean Prescription. All participants exercised several times a week for a total of 90 minutes, and at the end of six months, subjects on every diet lost an average of 13 pounds. There wasn’t a significant difference in weight loss between the four groups, and the only constant was that they had eliminated 750 calories from their daily consumption.
This is “the largest-ever controlled study of weight-loss methods” according to The New York Times. And it says exactly the opposite of what we’ve been hearing from nutrition activists: It’s not what you eat but how much you eat of it.
Dr. Frank M. Sacks, the study’s lead author and a professor of cardiovascular disease prevention at the Harvard School of Public Health, explained:
The real question for researchers, Dr. Sacks said, is what are the biological, psychological or social factors that influence whether a person can stick to any diet.
“The effect of any particular diet group is minuscule, but the effect of individual behavior is humongous,” Dr. Sacks said. “We had some people losing 50 pounds and some people gaining five pounds. That’s what we don’t have a clue about. I think in the future, researchers should focus less on the actual diet but on finding what is really the biggest governor of success in these individuals.”
What kinds of societal factors and personal choices might Dr. Sacks have been referring to? We offer a few ideas in our report “Small Choices, Big Bodies”: television, long commutes, sleep deprivation – all of these factors affect our lifestyles and, ultimately, weight.
The failure rate among chronic dieters is estimated to be 95 percent. But as another article in today’s New York Times explained, the pitfalls of this food-focused approach go far beyond its inability to help us lose weight. Referring to anxiety problems among children who grow up in diet-obsessed households, Eating with Your Anorexic author Laura Collins told the Times:
"It’s a tragedy that we’ve developed this moralistic, restrictive and unhappy relationship" with eating, she said. "I think it is making kids nutty, it’s sucking the life out of our relationship with food."
It’s time to focus on lifestyles and moderation, and let go of faddish diets and unhelpful activist advice about which foods should be vilified this week.