Food Quality vs. Quantity: Why What You Eat Is Just as Important as How Much You Eat

I’m constantly telling clients “food is information for your body.” You literally build your cells with the food you eat. Therefore, the quality of the food you eat matters, whether it’s regarding weight loss or overall health; when you give your body the macro- and micronutrients it needs, you can thrive. Although I’ve been marching to this mantra for a while, there hasn’t been great evidence to back me up…until now! A recent study conducted by researchers at Harvard and published in JAMA shows that the quality of food is equally important as the quantity or macronutrient breakdown (the proportion of protein/fat/carbs) when it comes to weight loss. Participants were divided into two groups – one group ate a healthy, low-fat diet and the other ate a healthy, low-carb diet. Both groups had nearly the same results when it came to weight loss and other metabolic markers of success. The thing they had in common was the “healthy” diet of fresh, whole foods. On the surface that may not seem like a huge deal, but IT IS.

For years, the standard nutrition advice was to eat low fat and count calories. More recently, the advice has shifted to lower carb, but calories are still the main focal point – as long as you eat less calories than you burn, weight loss occurs; what you eat, i.e. where your calories come from, isn’t really emphasized. One hundred calories of cookies is the same as 100 calories of vegetables (hint: it's NOT). This makes dieting “simple” with one rule to follow. However, weight loss is far from simple (which is why I don’t just focus on calorie counts in my practice). From endless anecdotal evidence (your cousin who’s always dieting or best friend that just can’t lose those 5 pounds), we know that dieting is tricky and frustrating. We still don’t have a clear understanding about why diets aren’t successful long term, but we now have evidence to show that what we eat is just as important as how much we eat. This groundbreaking study shows that eating good quality food matters just as much as – and maybe even more than – the number of calories from fat or carbs you consume. Provided your diet emphasizes real, whole foods, you have a better chance at weight loss and overall health and vitality.

So, how do you do it?

First, get rid of the junk – ditch processed and refined foods. Most foods with a nutrition label have been processed and stripped of many nutrients. There are exceptions of course, like canned beans/tomatoes/fish/etc., or whole grain oats, but for the
most part, if a label has more than a few ingredients or contains words you can’t pronounce, it’s not worth eating. Processed and refined foods are usually simple (white) carbohydrates with added sugar and/or salt and little nutrients. Moreover, the chemicals and additives in processed food trick your brain into thinking you’re eating something nutritious, but in reality, those foods merely
provide empty calories with no real nutrients. Without the vitamins, minerals and other nutrients your body needs, your brain tells you to keep eating. You can eat an endless amount of these foods that provide calories without nutrients, but it leaves you hungry and wanting more. Pringles’ “Once you pop, you can’t stop”
slogan is a real thing. It’s an easy trap to fall into and it’s why many people overeat junk foods. To avoid this, do a pantry overhaul and get rid of these addictive, empty calorie foods. Throw out the cookies, chips, high-sugar breakfast bars, and anything masquerading as a “health food” with a bunch of unknown ingredients and preservatives.

Second, fill your diet with fresh, whole foods. The easiest way to do this is shop around the perimeter of the grocery store. That’s where fresh foods like vegetables, fruits, meats, fish, eggs, and dairy are. You may have to peruse the center aisles for things like whole grains, dried beans, or frozen fruits/veggies (which are just as good as fresh!) but that’s not where the bulk of your time should be spent. And when you do get those items, just make sure the label only contains a few ingredients and nothing you can’t pronounce. Whether you’re cooking in or eating out, fill your plate with real foods: half should be non-starchy vegetables (greens, cauliflower, broccoli, etc.), a quarter should be protein (fish, chicken, steak, etc.), and another quarter should be a starchy carb (like sweet potatoes or butternut squash) or whole grains (brown rice, quinoa). This does mean spending more time preparing and cooking food, which can be a challenge for busy people, but talk to me about strategies for making this easier.

When you give your body the nutrients it needs via real food, you will feel full naturally and avoid overeating. Food is information for your body, so give it the good stuff, and enjoy every bite.

A final word. I’m not saying that by ditching processed food you have to deprive yourself of dessert! Everyone deserves a little sweet treat now and then. Dark chocolate is a great option, as is fruit and cheese, or a homemade cookie, pie, etc. Just stay away from the commercially prepared/packaged goodies that last forever on the shelf – they typically have trans fats (anything that says hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated on the label means it contains trans fats); these are synthetic fats that are known to cause heart disease. Also, steer clear of anything that contains high fructose corn syrup (HFCS). This processed sugar product contains excess fructose which can contribute to a fatty liver and leptin resistance – two things that are bad for overall health.