Some foods promote weight gain. Snack chips, candy, soft drinks—call these low-quality foods. Other foods tend to prevent weight gain. Fruits, vegetables, whole grains—call these high-quality foods. One would expect people who eat lots of low-quality foods and not a lot of high-quality foods to be fatter than people who do the opposite. A study from the Harvard School of Public Health proves that this expectation is accurate.
The study included data on eating habits and changes in body weight collected from more than 120,000 men and women over a period of 20 years. The researchers looked at how consumption of just a few specific high-quality and low-quality foods affected patterns of weight change over time. The average subject gained 16.8 pounds over 20 years. Data analysis revealed that almost all of this weight gain was associated with frequent consumption of low-quality foods such as potato chips and was negated by frequent consumption of high-quality foods such as vegetables.
For example, each daily serving of potato chips was linked to 1.69 pounds of weight gain every four years. By contrast, each daily serving of nuts was associated with a 0.57-pound attenuation of weight gain over four years.
It might be tempting to dismiss this study as a case of proving the obvious. Of course people who eat a lot of potato chips gain more weight over time! But the keys to effective weight management have always been obvious. And the reason so many of us struggle with weight management is that we don’t do the obvious. Instead we reach beyond the obvious for magic bullets and revolutionary new miracle solutions that promise to make weight management easy but never deliver on that promise.
The Harvard study shows that, although effective weight management may never be easy, it can at least be simple—simpler than counting calories or looking up the glycemic index of everything you consider eating. The average fifth grader knows the difference between high-quality and low-quality foods. With this knowledge and a little discipline you can identify a few high-quality foods to eat more of and a few low-quality foods to eat less of and thereby attain and sustain your optimal racing weight.
In the real world, athletes routinely take this approach intuitively and enjoy great results. For example, in 2009 pro cyclist Chris Horner, who admitted to having a terrible diet, sharply reduced his intake of fast food and soft drinks, ate more vegetables, and as a result lost 3 pounds of excess body fat and became a better climber. Horner hardly considers himself a nutrition expert, and he lacks the patience and willpower to follow restrictive diets. He’s also living proof that you can manage your weight without knowing everything or sticking to a complex dietary formula, if you just focus on the basics: eating more high-quality foods and fewer low-quality foods.