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Researchers Suggest It’s What You Eat, Not How Much, That Leads to Weight Loss

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Key Takeaways

  • Although calories still matter, researchers suggest food choices may be a major driver of weight loss.
  • Highly glycemic foods can cause hormone changes that send constant hunger signals to the brain.
  • One strategy that can help is focusing on pairing these foods with protein and healthy fats, a dietitian advises.

When it comes to weight loss, most advice tends to rely on the calories-in, calories-out equation. Also called the “energy balance model,” this approach suggests that weight gain occurs because you are consuming more calories than you are burning.

While that model does play a central role in weight management, a new perspective published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition suggests a significant missing component in that approach—what you are eating in addition to how much.

According to the researchers, weight gain is prompted not just by calories, but also by how foods with a high glycemic load operate in the body. Here is what you need to know about their findings and how to implement them in your life.

About the Findings

The paper—The Carbohydrate-Insulin Model: A Physiological Perspective on the Obesity Pandemic—was authored by 17 scientists representing a range of institutions, including the National Institute of Aging, Weill Cornell Medicine, Duke University School of Medicine, and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

The scientists noted that according to a commonly held view, the obesity pandemic is caused by the overconsumption of energy-dense foods and exacerbated by a sedentary lifestyle. They also note that obesity rates remain at historic highs, even though there has been a consistent focus on eating less and moving more.

They concluded that this lack of change may be directly related to the limitations of the energy balance model (EBM). That shortfall, they add, is a lack of consideration around the biological mechanisms that promote weight gain. And it is those mechanisms that may be the true root cause.

Shena Jaramillo, RD

Many people also are in a constant cycle of binge-and-restrict eating, where they consume excess calories one day followed by caloric restriction.

— Shena Jaramillo, RD

Reasons Behind Weight Gain

According to the current perspective paper, weight gain is prompted not just by calories, but also by how foods with a high glycemic load operate in the body. These are highly processed foods with easily digested carbohydrates, such as white bread, cakes, cookies, white rice, salty snacks, and soft drinks.

When eaten regularly, and in large amounts, foods like these cause the body to increase insulin secretion and suppress a hormone called glucagon—used to break down glycogen, the stored form of glucose that is used as the body’s fuel.

That process sends a message to the fat cells to store more calories. Simultaneously, the brain increases hunger signals because it perceives that there is not enough energy coming in.

The outcome is that you tend to stay hungry, which can cause overconsumption of calories. In other words, calories are still important, and the EBM cannot be thrown out completely. But, looking at what you eat in addition to how much may give you more insight into how your eating patterns and habits could be affecting weight fluctuations.

Calorie Paradox

Although the recent study focused on digging deeper than the effect of overconsumption of calories, another consideration here is the potential outcome of calorie cutting as a strategy for losing weight, according to dietitian and diabetes educator Shena Jaramillo, RD, of Peace and Nutrition.

“A calorie deficit can actually lead to a slowed metabolism, which will lead to weight gain,” Jaramillo says. “Many people are in a constant cycle of binge-and-restrict eating, where they consume excess calories one day followed by caloric restriction.”

Even if that puts them in a caloric deficit overall, they may turn to high-fat, high-sugar, high-calorie foods because those turn into energy the fastest.

“People are also more inclined to overeat after these intentional periods of famine, as their bodies are telling them they need as much food as possible quickly,” she says.

Proper Pairing

A strategy for including foods like these in your diet in a way that does not lead to weight gain is by pairing them with a modest amount of protein or nutritious fat, says dietitian Kara Hoerr, RDN.

Kara Hoerr, RDN

By simply pairing an apple with cheese or peanut butter, or having the potato as part of a meal, we slow down the digestion of those carbohydrates.

— Kara Hoerr, RDN

That reduces the spike in blood sugar and allows us to feel full for longer, she says. Also, that approach increases the number of nutrients in a meal, which is another big plus for health.

“If we just have a piece of fruit or juice, it’s going to be quickly digested, leaving us feeling hungry soon afterward,” Hoerr notes. “But by simply pairing an apple with cheese or peanut butter, or having the potato as part of a meal, we slow down the digestion of those carbohydrates.”

Mindful Eating

One more consideration when it comes to weight loss—in addition to how much you are eating and what those foods are—is why you are eating and determining if it is connected to hunger, says Hoerr.

“Why we eat is also a factor that can play into how well we manage our weight,” she adds. “Many times, we eat because of emotions, such as stress or boredom, even when we’re not actually physically hungry.”

When that happens, people tend to reach for carbohydrate-dense choices that impact the body's hormone levels. Addressing the emotional aspect of eating is just as important as food choices, she believes.  

What This Means For You

While calories-in, calories-out is still an important concept, what you are eating and how it changes your metabolism may also have a major effect on weight gain and loss. Consequently, you may want to add pairing foods and eating mindfully to your meal plan goals. And always talk to a healthcare professional before embarking on a new eating plan.

 

 

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  1. Ludwig DS, Aronne LJ, Astrup A, et al. The carbohydrate-insulin model: a physiological perspective on the obesity pandemicAm J Clin Nutr. 2021:nqab270. doi:10.1093/ajcn/nqab270