For access to all of our training, gear, and race coverage, plus exclusive training plans, FinisherPix photos, event discounts, and GPS apps, sign up for Outside+.
Research shows simplicity is a virtue in the matter of weight management.
Several months ago a friend of mine purchased the Food Lovers Fat Loss system, an expensive kit of slickly packaged books and CDs and DVDs that deliver a weight-loss program based on the concept of food combining. Not only did the sheer volume of material in the kit seem totally overwhelming to me when I looked it over, but the underlying food combining concept—the idea that the key to weight-loss is eating certain types of foods together—also struck me as rather abstruse.
I didn’t want to undercut my friend’s enthusiasm for the program, so I kept my reservations to myself, but I did not expect her to stick with it very long and she did not. It was just too complex.
Research has shown that simplicity is a virtue in the matter of weight management. Those who lose weight successfully tend to focus on fewer rules than those who fail in their weight-loss efforts.
For example, in a 2010 study, American and German psychologists compared the perceived complexity and adherence rates of two diet programs—Brigitte, a simple German plan consisting of readymade meal plans, and Weight Watchers, a complicated plan based on a points system. Three-hundred ninety women currently following one program or the other were surveyed at the beginning, middle, and end of an eight-week period. The researchers found that, the more complex a dieter perceived her plan to be, the more likely she was to give it up before the end of the eight-week period.
If there were truly only one right way to eat for health, performance, and weight management, it wouldn’t matter how simple or complicated the rules were. You’d just have to do it. But in fact there are many different healthy diets. Vegetarian, Mediterranean, low-fat, “primitive”, and various other diets have been validated by scientific research. It’s not only the food that matters, however. As the study described above demonstrates, how you perceive the dietary rules you live by is also important. So instead of trying to figure out which diet is the absolute best, choose a diet from among the many healthy options that seems especially “doable” to you.
It doesn’t even have to be a diet per se. Studies have shown that a majority of the most successful dieters—those who have maintained a weight loss of at least 30 pounds for at least one year—do not follow formal diet plans. Instead, they choose a small handful of their own rules and heed them consistently. The typical runner knows enough about nutrition—and enough about himself or herself—to set sensible rules.
Here, for example, are the main rules that govern my current eating habits:
1. At least five servings of fruits and vegetables per day.
2. No sweets except a bit of dark chocolate, except for the occasional treat.
3. No beverages with calories except for my evening glass of beer.
4. Whole grains instead of refined grains whenever possible.
These few rules help me keep my weight in check because they address the specific dietary mistakes that had previously caused my weight to creep upward, and in a way that I find sustainable. But you might find that a completely different set of rules works for you. Here’s an example of an alternative set of rules that might work especially well for someone whose primary dietary mistake is overeating:
1. Six meals and snacks per day.
2. Stop eating when satisfied, not full.
3. Protein with every meal and sack (to manage appetite).
Interestingly, research has also shown that successful dieters tend to eat a smaller variety of foods than the average person. While we’re used to thinking of dietary variety as a virtue (and it is), using repetition sensibly in your diet is another way to take advantage of simplicity in the effort to control your body weight. As long as you include a good balance and variety of foods within the day, it’s OK to eat more or less the same foods every day.
Weight management is difficult for most of us, no matter what. That’s because it requires resisting some foods we like that promote weight gain and also resisting the urge to overeat. Nothing can be done about these requirements. So don’t make weight management any more difficult than it has to be with a complicated diet. Keep it simple.