Bonjour! Je m’appelle Mario et je suis un gros américain!
September was a very good month. A couple pairs of close friends married each other in their home towns, far from New York, warming my heart with the celebration of everlasting love and giving me a great excuse to extend and take long vacations. Moreover, because both places were in regions with very strong food cultures, there were plenty of exciting, new dishes to try on top of old favorites to catch up on.
You can probably see where this is going.
After all of the food tourism, celebratory booze, and much more time sitting in cars than I anticipated, I left September 15 pounds heavier than I started it.
What actually makes us fat
Among all that I’ve read, the study I’ve found most interesting was published in the New England Journal of Medicine that, like countless other studies, sought to figure out ways to prevent long-term weight gain.
However, unlike other studies, rather than start with two similar groups and change just one factor to note the results (yes, I know that this is good science), this study used longitudinal data on 120,000 healthy Americans over the course of up to 20 years, wherein they asked folks to journal what they ate and other lifestyle choices alongside changes in weight.
Here’s what they found:
The way to read this chart is that for each food, a person in the study gained, on average, the corresponding number of pounds across the four year period with each daily serving they ate. Those foods whose bars are left of the zero line were associated with a weight LOSS.
So, for example, someone in the study who ate two servings of potato chips a day would have, on average, been observed to have gained about three pounds in four years.
Source:Dariush Mozaffarian, M.D., Dr.P.H., Tao Hao, M.P.H., Eric B. Rimm, Sc.D., Walter C. Willett, M.D., Dr.P.H., and Frank B. Hu, M.D., Ph.D. N Engl J Med 2011; 364:2392-2404June 23, 2011DOI: 10.1056/NEJMoa1014296
Analysis and my plan
These results say everything and they say nothing.
They say everything…
…because look at two of the foods associated with losing the most weight — yogurt and nuts. Both have a bit of fat, sugar, and calories — components that conventional wisdom (not to mention the simple math of calories in vs. calories out) tells us to avoid. The researchers suggest that the findings say that satiety — i.e. how full certain foods make you feel and for how long — is just as important as number of calories in that food. Oh sure, you may feel clever about the 1 1/2-calorie puffed rice wafer you had for lunch, but you’re not doing yourself any favors if it leaves you hungry enough afterward that by 2 p.m. you’re polishing off an entire birthday cake by yourself.
Nuts are probably good for weight loss because all that chewing makes us feel like we’ve eaten a lot and they stay like a lump of nutrients in our stomach for a long time, keeping us satisfied. Sure, there’s lots fat and thus calories in nuts, but they’re still pretty high when considering their satisfaction-to-calorie ratio.
Yogurt, I understand less and the researchers don’t seem to have much of an answer either. They hypothesize that the bacteria may have something to do with it.
But I have a different suspicion which I’ll discuss in the next section.
And the results say nothing…
…because this is only observed data that doesn’t control for other factors.
Think about french fries, for example. Yes, it’s pretty obvious that taking a simple starch and drowning it in oil is going to be bad for you. But I suspect the bigger factor is the lifestyle surrounding french fries; the folks who were eating a serving of french fries a day probably had it alongside a burger, and quite possibly washed it down with a couple beers.
On the other end, besides the bacteria, maybe yogurt is associated with weight loss because it’s usually eaten by people who are already pretty health-conscious.
Now, this doesn’t make the survey worthless. But it’s a good reminder that there are no silver bullets for maintaining a healthy weight; rather it’s about all the lifestyle factors taken together.
Well, after all that discussion, the obvious starting point for my plan has to be yogurt and nuts. Both will be pretty cheap when I buy them in bulk, then I’ll pack single servings for work or just eat single servings at once at home. This is in addition to making lunches and dinners with plenty of vegetables, fruits, and whole grains.
Also, after not buying any meat in August, I bought plenty while traveling. This month I’ll go back to not buying meat.
And because being healthy is all about the total lifestyle, I’ll cut booze back to no more than one a night and no more than three a week, as well as exercising 15 times.
Wish me luck, friends!