Experts agree, keeping tabs on the calories you consume can help you lose weight. But unless you’re weighing your food, it’s not an exact science. And food tracking can get tiresome. So if you’re trying to lose weight, but hate counting calories, you can finally exhale a deep sigh of relief and stop obsessing over every bite. A new study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association suggests it’s possible to lose weight by focusing more on what you eat and less on how much you eat.
The DIETFITS Study
The researchers of the study from the Stanford Prevention Research Center compared the effect of a healthy low-fat diet to a healthy low-carb diet in over 600 overweight and obese people over 12 months. “Healthy” meant whole foods or minimally processed foods. “We told everyone in both groups to eat as little white flour and added sugar and as many higher-fiber vegetables as possible,” says lead researcher Christopher Gardner, PhD, professor of medicine at Stanford University. Gardner and his team also set out to investigate whether the participant’s genes or insulin levels had any impact on their weight-loss results.
Gardner discovered that it didn’t matter if the participants went low fat or low carb. By simply focusing on eating healthy, whole foods both groups lost roughly the same amount of weight—an average of about 12 pounds in a year—with some participants losing up to 60 pounds.
“Participants weren’t instructed to count calories or stick to a prescribed number of calories per day, yet collectively they lost more than 6,500 pounds,” says Gardner. “It’s not that calories don’t matter. After all, both groups ultimately ended up consuming fewer calories on average by the end of the study, without realizing it. The point is that they did this by focusing on nutritious whole foods that satisfied their hunger.”
Interestingly, neither genes nor insulin levels predicted which diet was better for which people either. Fitbit advisor David L. Katz, MD, MPH, founding director of Yale University’s Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center, isn’t surprised by the results. “We’re a common species and should all be eating basically the same wholesome foods,” he says, “Personalization is the icing on top. The fundamentals of healthy eating is the well-baked cake.”
How to Lose Weight Without Counting Calories
The advice the registered dietitians in the study gave the participants was simple: Avoid ultra-processed foods made with added sugars and refined carbs, like sugary beverages and snacks, bagels, white bread, and refined flour. Instead, participants were taught over the course of 22 educational sessions how to eat nutrient-dense, minimally-processed whole foods and cook at home more often. Still wondering what a whole-food diet looks like? Pick the approach you find most appealing and put these foods on your plate:
The Low-Fat Approach: Eat foods like brown rice, barley, steel-cut oats, quinoa, beans, lentils, low-fat dairy products, vegetables, and fresh fruit.
The Low-Carb Approach: Eat foods like avocados, olive oil, salmon, hard cheeses, vegetables, nut butters, nuts and seeds, and grass-fed and pasture-raised animal foods. Learn more about How to Go Low Carb the Healthy Way.
Researchers found that successful participants also developed other winning habits, including not eating in their cars or in front of a screen and sitting down to enjoy meals with their family or friends. Basically, practicing some mindfulness around mealtimes.
The Bottom Line: Eating Healthy Food Naturally Cuts Calories
It’s clear that it’s time to put to bed the great debate about whether low carb or low fat is superior—both eating styles work. The best “diet” is one that’s loaded with vegetables, limited in added sugars and white flour, and filled with healthy foods you love to eat. And although calories still matter, you don’t necessarily need to meticulously count them. By listening to your body and choosing wholesome, nutritious foods, there’s a good chance you’ll naturally eat fewer calories, lose weight, and improve your health.
This article is not intended to substitute for informed medical advice. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat a health problem or condition. Always check with your doctor before changing your diet, altering your sleep habits, taking supplements, or starting a new fitness routine.