The answer to all those questions is yes, according to the provocative revelations produced by a big Harvard project that for the first time details how much weight individual foods make people put on or keep off.
The federally funded analysis of data collected over 20 years from more than 120,000 U.S. men and women in their 30s, 40s and 50s found striking differences in how various foods and drinks — as well as exercise, sleep patterns and other lifestyle choices — affect whether people gradually get fatter.
The findings add to the growing body of evidence that getting heavier is not just a matter of “calories in, calories out,” and that the mantra: “Eat less and exercise more” is far too simplistic. Although calories remain crucial, some foods clearly cause people to put on more weight than others, perhaps because of their chemical makeup and how our bodies process them. This understanding may help explain the dizzying, often seemingly contradictory nutritional advice from one dietary study to the next.
“The conventional wisdom is simply, ‘Eat everything in moderation and just reduce total calories’ without paying attention to what those calories are made of,” said Dariush Mozaffarian of the Harvard School of Public Health, who led the study published in Thursday’s edition of the New England Journal of Medicine. “All foods are not equal, and just eating in moderation is not enough.”
The findings help explain why many people put on weight little by little over the years without even realizing it. Just by picking the wrong combinations and portions of foods, and making unhealthy lifestyle choices, people imperceptibly enlarge their girth as time goes by, eventually becoming overweight or even obese, the study indicates.
Among all the foods studied, potatoes stood out. Every additional serving of potatoes people added to their regular diet each day made them gain about a pound over four years. It was no surprise that french fries and potato chips are especially fattening. But the study found that even mashed, baked or boiled potatoes were unexpectedly plumping, perhaps because of their effect on the hormone insulin.
Similarly, while it was no shock that every added serving of fruits and vegetables prevented between a quarter- and a half-pound gain, other foods were strikingly good at helping people stay slim. Every extra serving of nuts, for example, prevented more than a half-pound of weight gain. And perhaps the biggest surprise was yogurt, every serving of which kept off nearly a pound over four years.
“The big picture of what’s new and unique here is we looked at multiple things simultaneously. Most studies just focused on one thing or a few things at a time. I wanted to see if you took the whole picture together. That hasn’t been done before,” Mozaffarian said.