July 25, 2012

How Much Carb, Protein or Fat? Does it Really Matter for Weight Loss or Keeping Pounds Off?

You hear nutrition experts, or those who tout their nutrition bonafides, set forth a wide range of rules on THE WAY to succeed at weight loss. You’ll hear: eat no more than 40% of calories as carbohydrate, eat plenty of protein or get at least 50% of your calories as carbohydrate and limit fat to under 25% of calories, etc., or should I say ad nauseam.

Research and reality show there’s no ONE RIGHT formula for EVERYONE. Plus, in reality, the debate about the ideal mix of macronutrients (that’s carbohydrate, protein and fat) to eat comes down to a debate about where should 5 to 10% of your calories come from – carbohydrate, protein or fat? 

Which brings me to my main question: Does the research on losing that all important 5 to 7% of body weight, and the even more important job of keeping lost pounds off, suggest that there’s just one way of eating to accomplish this goal? Or does whether you eat a bit more fat or protein or carbohydrate, as long as your food choices are healthy, really matter?

My read on the research over, oh so many years, is a flat out NO!

Here are a few consistent research-based truths:

  • It’s time to stop giving so much power to the mix of carbohydrate, protein and fat one eats. The most important bottom line is your total calorie count day in, day out. While there are certainly healthier and less healthy ways to eat, lose weight and keep pounds off, the critical factor is the simple math of calories.

  • Research shows that people can lose weight on various macronutrients ratios. There’s no one right mix for everyone. What’s most important is that you find a mix that is right for you based on your eating habits over time. Research shows that when you attempt to trim some pounds you shouldn’t stray far from your usual eating habits because over time you won’t be able to follow this new way of eating for long. It will simply be too foreign and you’ll gravitate back to your usual eating pattern. Studies show that our eating habits are rooted in how we were raised, our cultural food habits and more. The POUNDS LOST study makes this point well.

  • During your weight loss efforts focus, from the get go, on changing your eating habits for the long haul rather than obsessing about following some rigid macronutrient mix and set of nutrition rules that is unrealistic and unnatural for you. It will be your transition to a healthier way of eating and healthier eating habits (perhaps that just means eating more meals and less grazing or not skipping breakfast, or not eating most of your calories after 6pm, etc.) and becoming physically active, that will help you keep lost pounds off. Research also shows you’ll need continued and continual support and more.

The editorial written by Martijn Katan in New England Journal of Medicine in 2009 in response to the results of the POUNDS LOST study come to mind:
“We do not need another diet trial; we need a change of paradigm…Like cholera, obesity may be a problem that cannot be solved by individual persons but that requires community action…it must be a total-environment approach that involves and activates entire neighborhoods and communities.”

It’s time to stop spending research dollars we can’t afford to squander to continue on this inane quest to answer the question about the ideal mix of macronutrients for weight control. Instead let’s spend these precious dollars translating our learnings about the valuable health benefits of losing those few pounds and keeping them off into programs that reach the masses of people who need support to reach their health goals and beyond.

Then let’s take some of these dollars and use them to address and change our food environment. At the end of the day that’s what will truly make it easier for all of us to not gain weight in the first place and for those who’ve lost weight, keep those unwanted pounds off.