“Simple Swaps” and “Diet Hacks” for Diet Season

Choice SlogansIf it slipped past you, that may be just as well. It’s diet season and even the Washington Post is serving up “simple swaps” for easy weight loss. They’re not exactly peddling hogwash. The simple swaps that Anahad O’Connor recommends is to replace highly processed carbohydrates with higher quality carbohydrates. The problem comes from overpromising the ease of doing this and the health benefits:

“The trick: Cut out processed carbs and replace them with high-quality carbs. These include fruits, vegetables, beans, lentils, quinoa and whole grains like brown rice, barley, farro and steel-cut oats.

“According to a large and growing body of research, this one swap could help you lower your risk of cancer and Type 2 diabetes, reduce your likelihood of dying from heart disease or a stroke and help you shed pounds without counting calories.”

Certainly, it’s a good idea to improve the quality of your diet. But the promise that people can “shed pounds” without paying attention to how much they eat is a false one.

Research Says

The research O’Connor uses to justify his claims is a 2019 publication in Lancet that we discussed here. Andrew Reynolds and colleagues conducted a series of systematic reviews and meta-analyses on carbohydrate quality and human health. They provide good evidence that it matters. More specifically, they found evidence with moderate certainty for the benefits of fiber and low to moderate certainty for the benefits of whole grains:

“Clinical trials show significantly lower bodyweight, systolic blood pressure, and total cholesterol when comparing higher with lower intakes of dietary fibre. Risk reduction associated with a range of critical outcomes was greatest when daily intake of dietary fibre was between 25 g and 29 g.”

But they did not determine that making “simple swaps” will help people “shed pounds without counting calories.” In fact, these analyses specifically excluded weight loss studies. It was a study of long-term dietary patterns and long-term health outcomes. Not short-term tricks for weight loss.

Sprinting in a Marathon

So, the recommendation to favor higher quality carbohydrates with plenty of fiber and whole grains in your daily diet is indisputably solid. But the promise that you can make simple swaps that will yield easy weight loss is bogus. For one thing, these swaps, though doable, are hardly simple for most people. It represents a doubling of the fiber that an average American consumes. Doing that in a fiber-poor food environment requires some significant effort.

Second, the pursuit of whole grain foods, though rewarding, can be quite a challenge because food labels on this subject can be quite confusing.

Finding and following a healthy dietary pattern is a marathon, not a sprint. Short term changes that are not lasting will make little difference for health outcomes. The best advice is to find a healthy pattern for eating that you can follow for a lifetime. Because this can be a challenge, professional advice from a good dietitian can help.

Click here and here for the real science behind the Post’s recommendation of “simple swaps.” For insight on confusion gaps in whole grain consumption, click here.  Finally, for further perspective, click here and here.

Choice Slogans, illustration for Simplicissimus by Thomas Theodor Heine / WikiArt

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January 4, 2023