Should You Be Focusing on Calories?

Beating age-related weight gain isn’t just a matter of counting calories. The specific foods you eat — and avoid — play a part.

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Photo by: Renee Comet ©2013, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved

Renee Comet, 2013, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved

The common wisdom of the dieting world has always been that in order to lose weight (or avoid gaining it), counting calories is key. Or is it?

A new study may help turn that notion on its head. “Our findings are in direct opposition to current guidelines that recommend a focus on calories,” says Dariush Mozaffarian, M.D., dean of Tufts University Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy. He and his colleagues followed three groups of people (over 100,000 total) for a period of 16 to 24 years, with follow-ups and weigh-ins every two years. On average, most people gained just less than a pound a year — an almost imperceptible change that can leave you suddenly 20 pounds overweight by middle age. “Our bodies actually have amazing physiological mechanisms to maintain weight by compensating,” explains Mozaffarian.

But according to the researchers’ findings, there are certain foods for which the body doesn’t compensate adequately, so eating more of them — regardless of overall caloric intake — leads to greater weight gain. “We’re not just buckets of calories in and out,” says Mozaffarian. “All foods have really complicated effects and all together they determine whether we gain or lose more weight.” In his research, combinations were key. For example, those who ate more meat in place of eating more carbohydrates gained less weight than those who ate both meat and carbs (so if you eat a burger, skip the bun). And while cheese intake was neutral in terms of weight gain, those who ate it most often in combination with carbohydrates (like on pizza or with bread) gained more weight. So eating cheese with walnuts may prevent weight gain in the long run, while eating it with crackers may increase it. And yogurt consumption was a win-win—those who ate it regularly were among the ones who gained the least weight over time.

The take-home message? Focus on the quality of your food even more so than the quantity of it in order to stay at a healthy weight as you age.

Eat more of these:

Protein-rich foods, like fish, beans and nuts, were linked to relative weight loss instead of gain over the decades.

Yogurt: Increased yogurt consumption was linked to less weight gain — regardless of whether it was plain or a sugar-sweetened variety.

Sally Wadyka is a Boulder, Colorado-based journalist who writes about nutrition, health and wellness.

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