Health and our search for how to optimize it has become a major industry in the U.S. With nearly 70 percent of the population considered overweight or obese, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), it’s no wonder that diet and exercise are hot topics of debate.
But some researchers believe that we are losing the forest for the trees in our constant examination of what, specifically, is the best, most nutritionally sound diet to follow.
The researchers suggest we’re missing the point — that endlessly pursuing a new or different diet isn’t helpful (or healthy!) for most people.
“As the obesity epidemic persists, the time has come to end the pursuit of the ‘ideal’ diet for weight loss and disease prevention,” says Sherry L. Pagoto, Ph.D., of the University of Massachusetts Medical School, Worcester, and Bradley M. Appelhans, Ph.D., of Rush University Medical Center, Chicago in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA).
Pagoto and Appelhans suggest that we get lost in the details. In our attempts to understand the best possible diet, we lost sight of guidelines for proper weight management.
“The dietary debate in the scientific community and reported in the media about the optimal macronutrient-focused weight loss diet sheds little light on the treatment of obesity and may mislead the public regarding proper weight management,” Pagoto and Appelhans add.
And certainly the scientific community and the media have examined and reported on numerous diets, such as low-carb, low-fat or Mediterranean, in attempts to determine which is the best choice for weight loss.
Although the question of how to eat in order to maintain a healthy weight has never been more important, Pagoto and Appelhans suggest that the differences in how these diets perform are small and inconsistent.
Moreover, our intense focus on finding just the right diet can keep us from paying attention to what really matters when it comes to weight loss: actually sticking to whichever diet you’ve chosen.
“Because behavioral adherence is much more important than diet composition, the best approach is to counsel patients to choose a dietary plan they find easiest to adhere to in the long term,” says Pagoto and Appelhans.
The literature and media spin their wheels comparing one diet to the next and we spin right along with them. That may be in part because choosing the right diet can feel a little bit like finding a magic pill that will fix your weight problems. We may think, if only I find the right diet, the one that is optimal for health and weight loss, I will no longer be overweight.
While understanding how food intake affects weight is important, our focus on that has drowned out other factors crucial to losing weight: regular physical activity and long-term behavior modification to adhere to new ways of eating.
“Although research specifically focused on improving adherence is ongoing, the number of studies being conducted is small compared with head-to-head macronutrient-focused diet comparison studies,” according to Pagoto and Appelhans.
They contend that “advancing obesity treatment requires emphasis on the biological, behavioral, and environmental factors influencing adherence to lifestyle changes and developing reimbursement strategies to support lifestyle interventions.”
Pagato SL, Appelhans BM. “A call for an end to the diet debates.” JAMA 2013; 310: 687-688.