Changing the quality of your diet is very different than trying to lose weight by restricting your calorie intake. Most dieters believe that the act of eating causes weight gain and will direct their efforts toward trying to eat as little as possible. However, now that we understand the control your metabolic thermostat has on your hunger and metabolism, we recognize that your body views your efforts to lose weight through calorie restriction as an unwelcomed period of starvation. Eating, in and of itself, is not responsible for weight gain. And starving yourself will not result in durable weight loss.
Instead, we must look at eating in greater detail to determine the best ways to change your diet in order to drive weight loss. There are some foods that actually trigger weight loss while others trigger weight gain. The nutritional changes that result in a lowering of your set point were explained in great detail in my first book, A Pound of Cure, which can serve as a reference for those of you looking for more information about this style of eating.
Perhaps the best example of how eating more of certain foods drives weight loss is by considering the following hypothetical case. If you were to start eating three pounds of broccoli a day, but not making any other conscious changes to the way that you eat, do you think that you would lose weight or gain it? Most of us recognize that this change in your diet would very likely result in weight loss because you would eat less of the calorie dense foods that typically make up the majority of your diet.
It turns out that there are many foods that are associated with weight loss beyond just green vegetables. When dietary surveys are performed across large numbers of people, we find that increased consumption of vegetables, fruit, nuts, seeds, beans, and yogurt are repeatedly found to correlate with leanness- not obesity. While our scientific understanding of why those of us who eat more of these unprocessed foods are thinner is not clear, it is likely that the answer lies in the thousands of largely undiscovered phytonutrients that are found in abundance in a plant based diet.
Fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, yogurt, and beans are all thermostat lowering, nutrient dense foods. “Nutrient Dense” means that they contain lots of nutrition in very few calories. The more of these foods you eat, the more weight you lose. Most of the foods in the average American’s diet are breads, fried foods, sugar sweetened foods, and sugar sweetened beverages. These foods are highly processed, thermostat raising, and calorie dense. Meaning that they contain lots of calories, but very little nutrition. Increased consumption of thermostat lowering, nutrient dense foods like vegetables tend to “crowd out” your consumption of calorie dense, thermostat raising, processed foods. The result of consuming large amounts of vegetables and other thermostat lowering, nutrient dense foods is a significant improvement in the quality of the calories that you consume- often without decreasing the quantity of calories you consume.
Improving the quality of your diet by eating primarily vegetables, fruit, nuts, seeds, yogurt, and beans results in a gradual lowering of your set point that allows you to shed a few pounds per month without feeling hungry or run down like you do on starvation diets. When I work with patients trying to change their diet, I often make the point that they are 1,000 pounds of vegetables away from lowering their set point down to their goal weight. At two pounds of vegetables per day, it would take just under a year and a half to eat all 1,000 pounds. This points out the gradual, cumulative effect of a qualitative diet change on your set point.
Another concept that is often helpful as a guide to improving the quality of your diet is to consider the ratio of thermostat lowering, nutrient dense calories that you consume versus those that come from thermostat raising, processed, calorie dense foods. I refer to this as your “CaloRatio.” I use it as a guide to offer a numerical measurements of the quality of your diet. I’ve release a free smartphone app (called CaloRatio) and website (www.caloratio.com) that I use with my patients to help them measure the quality of the calories they consume.
Long ago, we separated healthy eating from eating for weight loss. This change in perspective single handedly launched the diet industry and jumpstarted the obesity epidemic. If we hope to make any progress in losing weight permanently, it is critical that we reunite the concepts of eating for health and eating for weight loss.
By counting the ratio of good calories to bad calories, rather than focusing on the total number of calories, we de-emphasize portion control and instead, focus on helping the dieter improve the quality of the food they consume. As you work to maximize your CaloRatio for the day, you will find that you respond differently to those inevitable moments that you find yourself powerless to resist the draw of an unhealthy food choice. The typical calorie counter’s response to a “cheat meal” is to skip the next meal in order to ensure that your total calorie count for the day does not rise any further. Unfortunately, this is perhaps the worst reaction since it triggers your body to enter starvation mode and store that chocolate chip cookie rather than burn it. When eating to optimize your CaloRatio, eating chocolate chip cookies or other calorie dense foods can only be countered by consuming a large amount of nutrient dense, thermostat lowering food like fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and beans.
As we’ll discuss in more detail later, postoperative weight loss surgery patients thrive on a high CaloRatio diet. Weight Loss Surgery causes an immediate lowering of your set point putting you on the overfed side of the spectrum. When your physiology is working to burn off your excess fat stores to bring your body weight down to your newly lowered set point, you will crave fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, beans, and yogurt. You’ll have no taste for the processed fare that most of us craved before surgery. It’s critical for postoperative patients to harness this redirection of your taste preferences that the surgery causes by creating new habits and new personal philosophies about food. Your ability to do this successfully over the first 1-2 years after surgery is one of the most important factors that will contribute to your long term postoperative success.