Every once in a while I have a culinary break down and snack on potato chips….they gratify so many tastes: salt, fat, crispy carbs and empower a feeling of “so what.” Turns out that I (and you) would be better off snacking on nuts. At least that’s the conclusion of a prospective investigation of lifestyle behaviors and diet published in the June issue of The New England Journal of Medicine. The authors combined questionnaires on lifestyle factors and weight change for 120,877 women and men who were free of chronic disease and who participated in 3 studies with follow-up periods ranging from 1986 to 2006 (The Nurses Health Study), 1991 to 2003 (the Nurses Health Study II…this involved younger nurses; Nurses I and II were all women) and 1986 to 2006 (the Health Professionals Follow-up Study… all male). Their diets were assessed as to consumption of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, refined grains (what I call the white stuff), potatoes (including boiled, mashed potatoes and french fries), potato chips, whole-fat dairy products, low-fat dairy products, sugar-sweetened beverages, sweets and desserts, processed meats, unprocessed red meats, fried foods and trans fats. In other words, pretty much everything we know that can be bad for our health. The studies also evaluated nuts, 100%-fruit juices, diet sodas and subtypes of dairy products and potatoes. The participants were questioned about their physical activity, television watching, alcohol use, sleep duration and cigarette smoking.
The participants’ food and weight changes were assessed every 4 years. When the average weight gain was calculated for the 3 groups it was 3.35 lb…doesn’t sound like a huge amount, but when calculated over 20 years this comes to 16.8 lb. (There goes a size 6, an 8 and even a10!) And here are the foods and behaviors that were associated with weight gain, as well as those that were related to weight loss:
FOOD OR BEHAVIOR
WEIGHT GAIN (+) or L0SS (-) PER 4 YEARS
+ 1.69 lb
- 1.76 lb
+ 0.41 lb per drink per day
+ 0.14 lb
+ 0.31 lb per hour per day
I’m sure you will (and should) now ask: How many potato chips or nuts does one have to consume to gain or lose weight during that 4 year period? Just one serving per day! (And for the amount that constitutes a serving, you have to look on the package or bottle insert and/or use common nutritional sense.)
Please note that the weight gain that was associated with refined grains was similar to that of a serving of sweets and desserts. Inverse associations with weight gain (i.e. loss) were seen with the consumption of vegetables, whole grains, fruits, nuts and yogurt. No significant differences in weight gain were seen for high-fat versus low-fat and skim milk. The authors weren’t sure why yogurt consumption helped prevent weight gain. They hypothesized that changes in colonic bacteria caused by the yogurt might prevent weight gain. And they thought that even though vegetables, nuts, fruits and whole grains provide calories (and according to thermodynamic law a calorie is a calorie and energy put in the body will be stored unless it is used up); their consumption reduced the intake of the other foods that were more likely to cause weight gain. It was interesting that drinking 100%-fruit juice was associated with less weight gain than sugar-sweetened beverages. The reason may be that the fruit juices are consumed in smaller portions. (It’s hard to drink a “big gulp” of orange juice!)
Finally, (and we would expect this) the women and men with who exercised daily lost 1.76 pounds within each 4-year period.
Now for the smoking issue… I don’t want this data to stop anyone from deciding to stop. Smoking is thought to alter the distribution of body fat, promoting internal abdominal fat (called visceral fat) rather than fat on the rest of the body. So weight might be less while smoking but this visceral fat is dangerous and is linked to a high risk of diabetes. Any so called weight loss from smoking is ultimately harmful. (Just think of the fat going invisibly inside your abdomen as your thighs, arms and the tush lose circumference; and that this bad fat can kill you!), The immediate weight gain that can occur after smoking cessation actually represents a healthier distribution of fat, moreover that weight eventually declines.
Here are some stats that match the overall data from these 3 studies: Between 1971 and 2004 the average dietary intake of calories in the United States increased by 22% among women and 10% among men, mainly due to increased consumption of refined carbohydrates, starches and sugar-sweetened beverages. Just 50 to 150 extra calories a day will cause the gradual weight gains, and over time those pounds add up and demolish our figures (and health).
Bottom line: Eat those vegetables, whole grains, fruits, nuts and yogurt. Cut down on all those processed carbs and starches. Limit your TV time (you are more likely to eat the bad stuff while sitting there watching TV, even if you Tivo out the commercials for potato chips), make sure you exercise (at least 30 minutes most every day) stop smoking as soon as possible (better yet never start) and sleep 7 to 8 hours a day. Well our mothers knew all that!