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“I discovered by eating only natural, unprocessed foods, you avoid almost all concentrated calorie foods, and you won’t overeat. You’ll become lean.” Clarence Bass, Ripped: The Sensible Way to Achieve Ultimate Muscularity (1980)

“In general, changes in the consumption of refined or processed foods…were positively associated with weight gain, whereas changes in the consumption of unprocessed foods such as whole grains, fruits, nuts, and vegetables were inversely associated with weight gain.” Dariush Mozaffarian, MD, Frank B. Hu, MD, Walter Willett, MD, et al, The New England Journal of Medicine, June 23, 2011 

Harvard Study Confirms Ripped Diet Philosophy

Some people in and out of bodybuilding may have said (or thought to themselves) the Ripped diet philosophy couldn’t possibly work. It’s too straightforward, too simple, too satisfying. But it does work. A team of Harvard doctors analyzed the diet and lifestyle habits of 120,877 men and women over a 20 year period. They found that eating more whole, unprocessed foods stops creeping obesity in its tracks. It’s an amazing study, full of common sense details.

The pound a year that most people gain starting in young adulthood (sometimes sooner) is making us a nation of fatties (details below). Two-thirds of American adults are overweight or obese. Even our kids are getting fatter; childhood obesity has tripled in the last three decades. This study proposes a largely untried approach to the obesity epidemic. “This suggests that the path to eating fewer calories is not simply to count calories, but to focus on consuming a more healthy diet in general,” lead researcher Dariush Mozaffarian (associate professor of epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health) told The Wall Street Journal’s Christina Tsuei.  

Don’t waste your time counting calories; focus instead on the kind of food you eat. Eating regular meals to keep your energy and appetite on an even keel is also important.

The Harvard team came to that conclusion by calculating how much weight participants gained or lost every four years based on one additional serving per day of a wide range of foods. It’s the most comprehensive look ever at the effect of individual foods on body weight. They found that small changes in what you eat can make big changes in weight gain or loss over time.

No one ever got fat overnight; we get fat very slowly. That’s why it’s called creeping obesity. One pound a year starting at 25 adds up to a 30 pound gain by age 55. Unfortunately most people also lose one half pound of muscle every year, bringing the total fat gain to 45 pounds at age 55. Happily, small changes in what you eat over time can stop and even reverse this dismal trend. 

Exercise helps to prevent loss of muscle, but diet plays the larger role in weight control, according to Dr. Frank Hu, one of the study leaders. “Diet and exercise are important for preventing weight gain, but diet clearly plays a bigger role,” said Hu. (Exercise makes diet work better, especially for serious exercisers--strength and aerobics--like me and most visitors to this website; for details see http://www.cbass.com/UltimateFitness.htm .)

Here are some enlightening examples of what the Harvard team found. They found that the effect of eating potatoes depended on the form in which the potato was eaten. Adding a serving of French fries correlated with a 3.35 pound gain over four years; a serving of potato chips (about 15 chips and 160 calories) added 1.69 pounds, while boiled, baked, or mashed potatoes added only 0.57 pounds. (A serving of large fries contains between 500 and 600 calories, while a large baked potato is only 280 calories.). On the other hand, adding a serving of low-fat or skim milk had little or no effect on body weight; it was essentially neutral (0.06). Sugar-sweetened beverages and 100% fruit juice, however, add 1.00 and 0.31 pounds, respectively. (All values were adjusted for other changes that would affect weight change, such as physical activity, alcohol use, TV watching, and smoking.)

As you can see, what you eat and the form in which you eat it makes a substantial difference; bulky, whole foods with nothing added or subtracted are best for weight control. Many people, of course, eat more than one fattening food, and the accumulated calories pile up over time.

Other foods that added weight over 4-year periods included processed meats (0.93 lb), unprocessed red meats (0.95), sweets and desserts (0.41), butter (0.30), and refined grains (0.39). Slimming foods included fruits (-0.49), vegetables (-0.22), nuts (-0.57), whole grains (-0.37), and yogurt (-0.82).

Stick with unprocessed, whole foods (without added sugar or fat); do that and you won’t have room for fattening refined and sugary foods. Believe it or not, you won’t want the fattening foods on a regular basis. You’ll become lean.

The Harvard researchers pooled the results of three 20-year studies of men and women (nurses and other health professionals) who were not obese and without chronic disease when the studies began. Subjects were queried about what they ate and other lifestyle behaviors every four years; their weight was also recorded. Diet and lifestyle changes were analyzed in relation to weight gain or loss every four years. Physical activity was associated with an average weight loss of 1.76 pounds each four years.

Within each 4-year period, participants gained 3.35 pounds on average (-4.1 to 12.4). As you can see, the participants were a good representation of average healthy Americans--who typically suffer from creeping obesity. 

What’s the Explanation?

It’s really pretty simple and straightforward. Here’s how the Harvard guys explained it. (Hang with me; it’s a bit long. They have a lot of interesting details to tell us about.)

First, they have great confidence in their results. They showed that small changes translate to large changes over time, confirming that we grow fat slowly but surely—about 0.80 pounds a year across the three studies. “Whereas weight changes associated with any single lifestyle factors were relatively modest in our three [studies], in the aggregate, changes in diet and physical activity accounted for large differences in weight gain,” they wrote in the “Discussion” portion of their report. “The results were similar across the three separate [studies], increasing our confidence in the validity and generalization of the finding.”

Refined foods are less satisfying, leaving you hungry again sooner, leading to overeating. “These findings are consistent with those suggested by results in limited short-term trials: Consumption of starches and refined grains may be less satiating, increasing hunger signals and total caloric intake, as compared with the equivalent number of calories obtained from less processed, higher-fiber foods that also contain healthy fats and protein,” the researchers explained.

Eating more healthy foods actually reduces total calorie intake. “Some foods—vegetables, nuts, fruits, and whole grains—were associated with less weight gain when consumption was actually increased,” they wrote. In short, with some foods more is less—more satisfaction and fewer calories consumed. 

“Higher fiber content and slower digestion of these foods would augment satiety, and their consumption would also displace other, more highly processed foods in the diet, providing plausible biologic mechanisms whereby persons who eat more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains would gain less weight over time,” the Harvard team explained. 

It’s less clear, however, why yogurt consumption is associated with weight loss. “It is possible that there is an unmeasured confounding factor that tracks with yogurt consumption; [perhaps] people who change their yogurt consumption may have other weight-influencing behaviors that were not measured by our instruments,” they opined. People who eat yogurt may be more likely to exercise and have other healthy habits.

Why is 100% fruit juice moderately fattening? “Short-term controlled trials suggest that liquids are less satiating than solid foods, increasing the total amount of energy consumed,” they relate. Eating the whole fruit is more filling and satisfying; it also takes longer to eat and digest.

“Overall, our analysis showed that changes in the consumption of all liquids except milk were positively associated with weight gain.” the researchers continued. “Temporary trends render our findings especially relevant: between 1965 and 2002, U.S. beverage consumption increased from 11.8 to 21% of all calories consumed—222 more kilocalories per person per day—with sugar-sweetened beverages and alcohol accounting for 60% and 32% of the increases, respectively.” (Put down that soda pop and skip the brew.)

The study showed relatively neutral changes—no gain or loss—for dairy products, including whole-fat milk and cheese. The researchers had no explanation, except to say that prior studies showed “associations similar to ours for the overall categories of whole-fat and low-fat dairy products.” A Swedish study found that women who consumed whole milk and cheese lost weight. In addition, several long-term studies showed an “inverse association between dairy consumption and the risk of insulin resistance, the metabolic syndrome, or diabetes.”

Dairy products seem to be generally healthy and do not make us fat. Perhaps the fat in dairy products slows rate of absorption, leveling blood sugar and dampening appetite. (I prefer skim milk; I rarely drink it alone, however.)

Now, let’s look at the big picture, which includes some surprises. “Several dietary metrics that are currently emphasized, such as fat content, energy density, and added sugars, would not have reliably identified the dietary factors that we found to be associated with long-term weight gain,” the team wrote. “For example, most of the foods that were positively associated with weight gain were starches or refined carbohydrates; no significant differences were seen for low-fat and skim milk, and the consumption of nuts was inversely associated with weight gain. Clear patterns were also not seen in the relationship between weight change and the energy density of dietary components…Foods that contained higher amounts of refined carbohydrates—whether these were added (e.g., in sweets and desserts) or were not added (e.g., in refined grains)—were associated with weight gain in similar ways…No single metric appears to capture these complexities.”

One overriding theme does, however, captured the essence of what the Harvard researchers found. “In general, changes in the consumption of refined or processed foods and liquid carbohydrates or alcohol were positively associated with weight gain, whereas changes in the consumption of unprocessed foods such as whole grains, fruits, and vegetables were inversely associated with weight gain.”

Again, unrefined, whole foods curb weight gain, while refined or processed foods make us fat.

There’s more about physical activities, TV watching, sleep, and other factors, but that’s enough for now. Just one more point—a big one.

We Don’t Have to be a Nation of Fatties

The answer—the cure—is there for the taking.

“A habitual energy imbalance of about 50 to 100 kcal per day may be sufficient to cause the gradual weight gain seen in most persons,” the Harvard researchers observed. “This means that unintended weight gain occurs easily but also that modest, sustained changes in lifestyle could mitigate or reverse such an energy imbalance.” (Emphasis mine) In short, the solution is straightforward and simple—no suffering required.

That’s the key point, isn’t it? We don’t have to punish ourselves to control body weight. We just have to eat a little more wisely and become a little more active. Hopefully, this landmark study will help spread the good word to Americans everywhere. 

Who said the obesity epidemic can’t be reversed? Not me. I believe it can. The Ripped eating style is the answer. I’m living proof that it works—as are the many people who have perused this website and read our books—and taken the Ripped philosophy to heart.  

For more details, see Diet and Training Philosophy, in Brief http://www.cbass.com/PHILOSOP.HTM .

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