One of the more meaningful weight-loss studies I’ve come across was reported in 2018 in The Journal of American Medicine, which published the results of a randomized clinical trial on the difference between a low-fat diet and a low-carb diet, and it went by the “riveting” title of;
“Effect of Low-Fat vs Low-Carbohydrate Diet on 12-Month Weight Loss in Overweight Adults and the Association With Genotype Pattern or Insulin Secretion” … okay then.
On the surface, this study looked like so many others. Still, the excitement of the title notwithstanding, not only were the results surprising, but the researchers got an entirely different outcome than they had anticipated.
The study was led by Christopher Gardner, the director of nutrition studies at the Stanford Prevention Research Center.
Dr. Gardner and his colleagues designed the study to compare how overweight and obese people fare on low-carbohydrate and low-fat diets. In addition, researchers wanted to test the hypothesis that some people are predisposed to do better on one diet over the other, depending on their genetics and their ability to metabolize carbs and fat. (1)
This study involved 609 participants whose median age was 40; all were overweight but were free of all primary health concerns, in other words, no diabetes, cancer, heart disease, high cholesterol and so on.
The most striking thing about this clinical trial was the two major concepts:
- All 609 participants were told there were no calorie restrictions so they could eat as much as they wanted, whether assigned to the low-carb diet or the low-fat diet, and
- A dietitian regularly counselled all participants to eat whole foods rather than processed foods for a full 12 months.
In other words, it didn’t matter if they were on the low-fat diet or the low-carb diet; the key was to eat whole foods that were minimally processed, nutrient-dense, and cooked at home whenever possible. (2)
Critical Points for the Low-Fat Dieters
For example, soft drinks, fruit juice, muffins, white rice, and white bread are technically low in fat. Still, the low-fat diet group was told to avoid those things and eat foods like brown rice, barley, steel-cut oats, lentils, lean meats, low-fat dairy products, quinoa, fresh fruit and legumes.
Critical Points for the Low-Carb Dieters
The low-carb group was trained to choose nutritious foods like olive oil, salmon, avocados, hard cheeses, vegetables, nut butter, nuts and seeds, and grass-fed and pasture-raised animal foods.
At the end of 12 months, the results were nothing short of astonishing.
Four hundred and eighty-one participants completed the trial. Some people gained weight, and some lost 50 to 60 pounds, but the average weight loss was 12 pounds. Not only that, but they saw improvements in their waist size, body fat composition, blood sugar and blood pressure levels.
The researchers admitted they were somewhat surprised at the findings because their purpose had been to study the effects of a high-quality, low-fat diet versus a high-quality low-carb diet, but as the results clearly showed, the type of diet was irrelevant. The only critical factor was that the participants ate real food.
Consider that for a moment, the participants could eat as much food as they wanted for an entire year, and yet they still lost an average of 12 pounds … and that’s not water weight; that’s 12 pounds of pure fat!
“A couple of weeks into the study, people were asking when we were going to tell them how many calories to cut back on,” recalled Dr. Gardner. “Many of the people in the study were surprised — and relieved — that they did not have to restrict or even think about calories.” (3)
“We explained that if what they were doing left them feeling hungry, then when they achieved their weight-loss goal, or the study ended, they would likely go off their diet and back to what they were eating before, and so the weight would likely come back on.” (4)
“We wanted them to find a new eating pattern they could maintain forever, without even thinking of it as a diet. We got a lot of positive feedback from the participants: they were happy not to count calories or limit their daily caloric intake.”
“The most common type of feedback we got from the most successful participants (in both diet groups) was that we had ‘changed their relationship to food.’” (4)
What’s key was emphasizing that these were healthy low-fat and low-carb diets: A soda might be low-fat, but it’s certainly not healthy. Lard may be low-carb, but an avocado would be healthier.
In addition to teaching the participants (in 22 evening classes spread out over the year of the study) about low vs. high carb and fat intakes, we also worked with all participants on mindful vs. mindless eating. For example, we asked them not to eat in the car or in front of a screen, to eat with friends and family, to try to cook for them and with them more often, and to shop more frequently for ingredients at a local market … and don’t buy ultra-processed convenience food crap! (1)
Stop Counting Calories and Lose Weight?
Calorie counting has long been ingrained in the overall nutrition and weight loss advice.
“I think one place we go wrong,” said Dr. Gardner, “is telling people to figure out how many calories they eat and then telling them to cut back on 500 calories, which makes them miserable. We need to focus on that foundational diet, which is more vegetables, more whole foods, less added sugar and less refined grains.”
It’s not that calories don’t matter. After all, both groups ultimately consumed fewer calories on average by the end of the study, even though they were not conscious of it. The point is that they did this by focusing on nutritious whole foods that satisfied their hunger.
“Perhaps the biggest takeaway from this study,” Gardner said, “is that the fundamental strategy for losing weight with either a low-fat or low-carb approach is similar. Eat less sugar, less refined flour and as many vegetables as possible. Go for whole foods, whether that is a wheatberry salad or grass-fed beef. On both sides, we heard from people who have lost the most weight that we had helped them change their relationship to food and that now they were more thoughtful about how they ate.”
We are being programmed to consume nutrient-void, processed junk whose only purpose is to nourish the financial health of the Big Food companies.
If we capitulate to the influence and manipulation of Big Food, if we allow them to manage our diet and trick us into excessive consumption of ultra-processed junk, we’re going to pay a terrible price in terms of our health and well-being.
So, here’s the thing: How much would your life change if you managed your diet with this simple declaration? From now on, I’ll only eat real food!
Declare that, and you’re beginning to understand what health and weight mastery is all about.
- Armitage, H., “Low-Fat or Low-Carb? It’s a Draw, Study Finds,” Stanford Medicine, News, Feb. 20, 2018
- Gardner, C. D., et al., “Effect of Low-Fat vs Low-Carbohydrate Diet on 12-Month Weight Loss in Overweight Adults and the Association with Genotype Pattern or Insulin Secretion,” JAMA, 2018 Feb 20; 319(7):667-679
- O’Connor, A., “The Key to Weight Loss is Diet Quality, Not Quantity, a New Study Finds,” New York Times, Feb. 20, 2018
- Hull, M., “Low-Fat vs. Low-Carb? Major Study Concludes: It Doesn’t Matter for Weight Loss,” Examine.com Feb 7, 2020