Saturday, August 6, 2011

Diet Solution to Weight Gain Epidemic Revealed!

An RD’s lessons from the Harvard Study

Thanks to Right Angle Tutors for use of this photo

Harvard researchers just discovered the cure to the so-called obesity epidemic. Or so you may think from their press release June 22, 2011 and from the media blitz that followed Effect of Lifestyle On Weight Gain, published in the NEJM. Powerful statements linking specific foods and food categories with resulting weight change emerged. And any progress we had made as a society toward a balanced approach to eating, to a move away from rigid food rules, crazy diets, and food paranoia was destroyed. They concluded the following:

  • There are ‘good’ foods and there are ‘bad’ foods 
  • Focusing on specific foods to avoid versus counting total calories is the way to consume less 
  • Changing carbohydrate type is the answer for weight control, by eating less sugars and other sweets
  • Fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts and yogurt prevent long term weight gain
  • Do the fruit and nuts get to count as a fruit serving in my chocolate?
  • Potato chips, French fries, boiled, baked, mashed potato, sweetened soda, and meats are associated with the obesity epidemic

The study results and conclusions were further echoed throughout the media. Even Jane Brody, from the NY Times, wrote an article entitled “Still Counting Calories? Your Weight-Loss Plan May be Outdated”, where she states that it is no surprise that French fries led the list of foods that contributed to the greatest weight gain. Yet the Harvard study authors go out of their way to emphasize that the results do not suggest it’s about how many calories per French fry (its “caloric density” or calories per serving)—so why draw the conclusion that of course (high calorie) French fries would be high on the list for causing weight gain?

The authors do acknowledge that, “weight stability requires a balance between calories consumed and calories expended…” (although the media fails to highlight this little detail). Yes, they still agree that weight management comes down to calories. But what they hope to define are the foods which are associated with our over consuming calories, along with possible explanations.

What’s it all about?

Harvard School of Public Health evaluated three separate studies to see how changes in our eating and in lifestyle factors impact our weight gain over time. Researchers evaluated self-reported changes in lifestyle factors (cigarette smoking, exercise, alcohol consumption) in addition to changes in individual foods consumed. They looked at three large groups of participants over a 12-20 year period, reassessing every 4 years. They then drew some conclusions and released them in a Press Release and a professional journal article.

Because weight gain creeps up on us (or at least in this study population of non-obese individuals), the authors suggest it is more difficult to know what’s contributing to weight gain, which averaged 16.8 pounds over a 20-year study period. And so they undertook this colossal venture to find us the answers. Well, at least they tried to.

Before I share my reaction to the studies’ results, conclusions and media frenzy, let me state that I have no financial interest in the National Potato Growers Association (is there one, even?).  Or, I might add, with Coca Cola and PepsiCo. But I do have a vested interest in not propagating diet myths. And it is this fear of public misinformation that drives me to invest the time reading the full research article (all 13 pages), which I suspect many of the popular press’ journalists failed to do.

My conclusions on the Harvard study


Can you guess how much ice cream I ate? And how much I had
from the container before acknowledging I was eating?
Twenty-five years counseling patients and I can assure you that most people are not very adept at accurately assessing their portions. Sure, we can accurately report how many fruits we consumed, but how many chips? Or how much mashed potato? And I’d bet my serving of French fries differs from yours! Ask a dozen different people and you’ll undoubtedly find there’s a tendency to underestimate portions.

That is, unless you are underweight or anorexic; these populations tend to overestimate portions. And beverages are most notoriously challenging for us to estimate (unless of course they are in a marked can). When I have people measure their drinking glasses at home to determine just how much soda they drink, they are shocked. What they assume to be 8 ounces is typically double that amount.

Prepackaged food items and individual units will naturally be more accurately evaluated—individual yogurt cartons and fruits, for instance. Even grains that we tend to measure may be easier to assess, such as oatmeal, rice and cooked whole grains. These very foods that we are more likely to accurately assess our portions of, tend to be lower in calories. Without a doubt, this could distort the study's findings.

Sometimes a potato isn’t just a potato

How do you make mashed potatoes? I’ve heard of recipes that include a whole stick of butter, and some with only half a stick; there are those that add heavy cream and those that add a splash of milk. What’s my point? Did the researchers have information about the contents of these mashed, boiled, and baked potatoes, before concluding that it was the “refined carbohydrate” that was the culprit here leading to weight gain? The study emphasizes that it’s not about calories per serving. But here’s the problem: the serving size is not measured in the study, and we simply can’t make any conclusions about caloric density, if we don‘t even know the content, never mind the quantity, of what’s really in each portion!

Food selection may be a marker for more conscientious eaters

A colleague once said “if she’s eating rice cakes for breakfast than she’s not too serious about gaining weight”. Point well taken. Those who take the time to cook whole grains, such as brown rice, quinoa and buckwheat, are not likely to be the frequent diners at McDonald’s. Perhaps we could say the same for yogurt and low fat dairy eaters. Does anyone start drinking skim milk because of the taste? Eating these foods may simply identify those people who care about their health and the direction of their weight. Weight change may have nothing to do with the individual food itself.

Lifestyle changes they should have assessed

In their next study perhaps they should look at variables that truly impact our weight. Here are a few questions for their next questionnaire:

  • Do you eat your potato chips right out of the bag, or do you measure them? 
  • Do you have a second and third portion immediately or do you wait to see if you are still hungry? And if you wait, how long do you wait for? 
  • Do you reach for food when you are hungry, when your body needs fuel? Or do you find yourself reacting to a triggering conversation with a loved one with some sweets or chips? 
  • Do you eat the chips mindfully at the table, without distraction, or are they consumed while driving, watching TV or at the computer screen?

Trust me--these cause weight gain. That is, when you eat them
right from the bag without attention to portion!
These behaviors have everything to do with our weight change. We are less accurate assessing our food intake when distracted. And our mindfulness about hunger and satiety likely gets lost as well. Not eating with all our senses can make us feel like we haven’t yet had our needs met, and so we keep seeking, looking for more food to eat.

Secrets hidden in the Study that nobody advertised


For all of you Zone Diet and Atkins followers believing that more protein is good and carbs are bad, think again. This study showed that over time, meats, both processed and unprocessed types, were associated with weight gain. So if you are still stuck in the need for more protein for weight management, heed the warning. But remember, this is based on self-reported portions, a potential flaw in this study!


So it’s notable to me that yogurt and low fat dairy products as a category (adjusted by age) significantly link with decreasing weight over time. Why notable? Because Walter Willett, one of the study authors, has never been fond of supporting milk consumption. In previous presentations promoting his Mediterranean Oldways Diet Pyramid, he spoke strongly against inclusion of milk and milk products. 

Never shy to ask my questions at conferences, I pressed him on this subject some time ago. His response fell short. He emphasized that some have intolerances to milk, and generalized about milk’s high fat content. And what about low and non-fat diary? And what about Lactaid milk for the intolerant? The majority of the population does not have a milk allergy, so why such an omission of dairy for the general healthy population? Let’s acknowledge that low fat dairy and yogurt are valuable, based on this study’s data.

Diet Soda

There was no meaningful association between diet soda intake and weight change over time. Drinking it isn’t likely to cause weight loss. And contrary to previous media hype, diet soda won’t result in increasing weight either. But it certainly doesn’t add anything nutritionally to your intake. And, consuming it may displace some milk, which definitely does have its merits.


Exercise itself didn’t link with weight change, but a change in exercise level did. One more time?

If you’ve been doing the same amount and intensity level of physical activity over years, what happens? Well, think back to when you first started to exercise. It was quite a workout. But after doing it consistently for a while, it got easier. And with greater ease, you weren’t working as hard. And when you weren’t working as hard, you were burning fewer calories. And if you were using up fewer calories, over time, even if your eating remained the same, you would gradually gain weight. For the under eaters and over exercisers among you, let me remind you that you are not at any advantage if you continue to restrict you calories, relative to your need, while exercising. You, too, will suffer, ultimately breaking down the very muscle you aim to increase, and slowing your metabolic rate.

Still reading? Here's the take home message!

So what have the Harvard researchers really taught us? To be critical readers of the media, and of research, for starters. To recognize that studies like these are merely looking at associations, between weight change and changes in foods, and in lifestyle factors. We still don’t know why the link between potato products and weight gain. Maybe if we controlled for serving sizes and preparations we’d see a link with caloric density and weight gain. But maybe not.
Is it me, or do you see a smiley face in my husband's sushi?

I support inclusion of whole grains, fruits and vegetables and yogurt in our diets. But I also know that there’s a place for white, refined carbohydrate sources such as pasta, rice and low fiber French toast. And do I need to emphasize there’s a place for chocolate?

It may be, with more information, we will find some valuable links about foods and their impact on our fullness, affecting our weight over time. But I’d be a lot more cautious, and the media ought to be too, about labeling foods as bad versus good, perpetuating the myth information that causes us to stress eat. 


  1. Excellent piece! Incredibly helpful. Thanks, Lori.

  2. This study sounds awfully like the 'All cats have four legs. My dog has fours legs. Therefore my dog is a cat' scenario. (or rephrased for this case-study: 'people who gained weight ate potatoes, therefore the potatoes must cause the weight gain').
    What if the same group were given deep-fried sweet potato chips or corn chips instead - would their weight continue to increase? In which case would the study now conclude that sweet potato and corn should join potatoes in being labelled 'bad'?

    And as for labelling foods 'good' vs 'bad'... every single person struggling to recover from an eating disorder is currently banging their heads repeatedly on the desk in front of them...sigh...

    I am surprised that a study with such an apparently subjective methodology was produced by this prestigious institution - I would very interested in reading the full study if you had it.

  3. This MUST be one of your best-written superior pieces EVER...(did I mention IMPORTANT?!)...I was hoping you would mention this recent study...which I personally find to be a dangerous one to those of us trying to find normalcy in nourishment...Particularly dangerous is the tendency for those of us "who would restrict" to banish, once again "evil..bad foods" and return to eliminating entire food groups...Upon reading Jane Brody's article in the New York Times...the still "sick" part of myself said.."See??!!...I just KNEW all calories are not created equal and that refined carbs...heck ANY starchy carbs are BAD..."

    Recovery..what it entails for both body and frightening enough...While body weight fluctuates with indecisive fervor...when we believe we have destroyed our metabolism forever, while we search for a "way" of eating that will allow our body to heal, it is all too easy to look to these studies and to food-group evicting as the "solution" to our problems..

    Interesting isn't it?..that this study flies in the face of everything most ED teams and nutritionists say and teach..This new "approach" would have us once again listening not to our bodies needs AND desires...but to follow a set, standard guide to how we SHOULD eat. Mindful, healthy eating is not about feeling "bad" or "weak"...It seems that such reports will only guarantee continued "stress eating" as you so astutely noted Laura. Amazing post..

  4. Thanks for the feedback.
    @PJ you appropriately identify the difference between association and causation. And I share your frustration that these prestigious authors fly under the radar re appropriate critical evaluation of study conclusions.

    @Donna Your acclaim is the best reward for many hours lost to writing!
    What pains me is that many RDs simply tweeted the article, seemingly in support, without criticism. If everyone would tweet and FB this piece perhaps we could counter some of the damage!

    Thank you all for your thoughtful comments!

  5. After measuring out 1/2 cup of Life cereal I can tell you that I definitely do not eat 1 serving size! =) That's what I like about some of the new packaging of food, I will pay more for a box of 100 calorie Cheeze-Its so that I know how many calories I am eating. I was just telling my parents today who are trying to have a healthier lifestyle how much I appreciate your blog because you have a "everything in moderation" view!

  6. @Tracey One suggestion--don't let the portion sizes determine how much you eat. Their purpose is to define a portion in order to describe its nutritional value (ie. # of grams of fat, mgs of sodium, etc). But we don't all need the specific serving size dictated on the package. If you rummage through the old posts you'll see a post on this subject as well.
    Thanks for reading!