Eating 'better' is better than counting calories for weight loss, study finds

Plus, a dietitian shares her tips for eating non-processed foods.

Researchers at Stanford University found there is no significant difference in weight change between a healthy low-fat diet versus a healthy low-carbohydrate diet.

The 12-month weight loss study of 609 individuals found the tactic of choosing whole, unprocessed foods and not worrying about calories resulted in similar weight loss for people following both diets.

The study also found there is no specific insulin levels associated with the dietary effects of weight loss and no specific gene pattern that affected which diet made an individual lose weight.

"I was very happy when I read it," Maya Feller, a New York-based dietitian, said of the study, published Tuesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

“The takeaway is that the quality of what you eat is incredibly important,” she said. “You may or may not need to eat an 1,800-calorie diet, but what you need is a diet that is based on whole and minimally processed foods without an excess of added sugars, salts and saturated fats.”

Feller said staying within calorie limits doesn't necessarily mean making good nutrition choices. For example, choosing to eat a 100-calorie pack of cookies would make it easy to count the calories consumed, but it won't contribute to better health.

"Yes, it’s 100 calories and if you’re on a calorie-counting diet it probably fits within your plan, however a 100-calorie pack of [cookies] is not really going to give you as much nutrition as having a piece of fish and some vegetables," she said.

Participants in the Stanford study were given nutrition information in 22 diet-specific small group sessions led by health educators, over the 12-month period. The study said the sessions focused on "ways to achieve the lowest fat or carbohydrate intake that could be maintained long-term and emphasized diet quality."

Making the switch from focusing on the number of calories consumed to eating whole, unprocessed foods is a “deep paradigm shift,” according to Feller.

“I do think that consumers may be confused because for some people who don’t have a healthy relationship with food, counting calories gives them guidelines,” she said. “It’s like really relearning a relationship to food.”

That relearning process requires both mindfulness and focus, but Feller believes it can be done.

"It means you’ve shifted from buying the box that lists out the serving size to actually purchasing a head of collard greens and saying, ‘I’m going to pair it with quinoa and grilled fish,'" she explained.

Feller recommends setting a goal to eat two to three servings of fruit per day and consuming a minimum of two servings of non-starchy vegetables at both lunch and dinner.

People concerned about portion size can focus on dividing their plates, Feller suggested. Half of the plate should have vegetables, one-fourth should have lean protein and one-fourth should have grains or starchy vegetables.

Whole, unprocessed foods are also naturally more filling and satiating, she added.

When shopping for food, Feller recommended buying the food in its most minimally processed state.

“If you want broccoli, then you should be eating a head of broccoli,” she said. “And you can buy fresh produce in bulk and freeze it for later use, so you become your own manufacturer.”

“Meal prep can be a lifesaver,” said Feller. She shared these four tips for meal prep success.

1. Use Saturday to plan ahead: Sit down Saturday and look at your week. Ask yourself, 'What am I prepping for? Is there a refrigerator? Do I need to bring it in a cooler?'

2. Be creative: One size doesn’t fit all. You have to be creative and find out what’s going to work. The best eating plan is the one that you can actually stick to and maintain.

3. Pack balanced meals: This is not a time to starve yourself. Take time to pack balanced meals that will nourish you.

4. Use the freezer: Prep for the entire week and put it in the freezer and take it out the night before so it’s ready to go.