But here’s the good news: oftentimes, the simplest approach to healthy eating is also the most effective one.
In order to settle into the perfect nutritional regimen, though—one that promotes weight loss, longevity, and everyday vibrance—it’s necessary for us to examine the pitfalls and mistakes that keep us from making ideal dietary choices.
For better or worse, some of the basic nutrition principles in which we’ve come to believe are not necessarily accurate or essential. In this article, we’ll examine two of the most prominent misleading principles. As you’ll see, experts are discovering that the real principles of optimal nutrition are quite simple—and that, in many ways, we’ve been overcomplicating things all along.
Quality is more important than variety
Variety may be the spice of life, but it’s not always the recipe for optimal health, according to experts.
For decades, official nutritional recommendations have focused on eating a “balanced diet”—that is, eating a wide variety of foods. This way of thinking was appropriate when it first came into fashion, but some experts now believe that it’s obsolete. After all, the imperative to consume a variety of foods is based on old studies of low-income populations, and was adopted in order to prevent nutrient deficiencies.
Now times have changed. Unprecedented access to plentiful and varied food has led to a different outcome: those who eat the greatest variety of food tend to consume more junk foods, according to a recent study published in the journal Circulation.
The panels of researchers that published this report explain that for many people, a widely varied diet can conceal the lack of authentically healthy foods comprising the diet—that is, people think they’re eating healthily when they eat lots of food types, but they’re actually consuming more processed foods, refined grains, and sweetened beverages than is optimal.
According to the researchers, “a healthy eating pattern…emphasizes adequate intake of plant foods, protein sources, low-fat dairy products, vegetable oils, and nuts, and limits consumption of sweets, sugar-sweetened beverages, and red meats.”
An aside about nutrient deficiencies
One important caveat: the implication that eating a varied and balanced diet is obsolete is not meant to suggest that nutrient deficiency is a thing of the past.
On the contrary, as we’ve discussed in past articles, it’s still a huge issue. It’s incredibly important to ensure that you’re consuming a nutrient-dense diet, to have yourself tested for acute nutrient deficiencies, and to address these issues accordingly.
Luckily, eating a simple diet rich in high-quality foods (and taking high-quality supplements when necessary) is the perfect way to combat deficiencies.
The researchers who published the study cited above simply wanted Americans to understand that they don’t need to worry so much about variety. According to Dr. Marcia Otto, a member of the panel that released the study, “it’s O.K. if your diet is not very diverse if you’re focusing on healthy foods and trying to minimize consumption of unhealthy foods.”
Quality over quantity (calorie counting is not the way to lose weight)
Another prevalent nutritional fallacy is the principle that “less is healthier.” The healthfulness of occasional and intermittent fasting notwithstanding, the facts show that fastidiously tracking our caloric intake is not the best way to lose weight.
Simply put, it’s time for us to let go of our attachment to calorie counting.
Caloric content provides a satisfying way to “measure” our weight loss efforts, but studies reveal that this just isn’t how weight loss works. Unfortunately, trusting that “low-calorie” is synonymous with “healthy” has created a consumer culture replete with low-calorie but decidedly unhealthy foods—diet sodas, low-calorie desserts, and low-calorie snack foods of every variety. Dieters can easily convince themselves that as long as they consume less than a certain number of calories, they’ll lose weight.
A recent study published in JAMA examined the errors in this manner of thinking. The researchers reported that those who focused on eating a variety of quality whole foods, rather than cutting calories, were significantly more successful at losing weight.
They tested this hypothesis for both low-fat diets and low-carb diets, and found that calorie counting was not the determining factor of success in either approach. Instead, simply focusing on eating lots of vegetables and whole foods (and cutting down on refined grains, sugars, and processed foods) yielded significant weight loss results.
By all means, pursue whatever dietary mode feels most aligned with your body—but just remember that your approach much center around consuming nutrient-dense, high-quality vegetables, fruits, and other whole foods. Stick to simple, organic, whole foods, and you’ll lose weight (and optimize your overall health) more quickly than any fad diet can promise.