Jan. 26, 2004 -- How's this for a great way to lose nearly a pound a week: Don't exercise. Don't count calories. Eat until you're full, and oh, yeah, what you eat mostly comes from the newest four-lettered word in the dieter's dictionary -- "carb."
It's not the latest best seller, but a study in the latest issue of Archives of Internal Medicine. And it shows that older, overweight people with prediabetes could eat as much as they want, eat large amounts of complex carbs, and still drop weight as long as they limited fat intake to no more than 20% of their total calories.
"But in our study, people ate all the food they wanted on a high-carb, low-fat diet, they didn't exercise, and they still averaged 7-to-11 pound weight loss over three months," says study researcher William J. Evans, PhD, director of the nutrition and metabolism lab at the University of Arkansas College of Medicine. "This shows that the important point isn't in reducing calorie intake."
Instead, his study suggests that if you pig out, make sure the bulk of your diet consists of whole grains, fruits and vegetables, and leaner versions of meat and dairy.
Lots of Carbs, Lots of Exercise
The study compared a high-carb, high-fat diet -- the typical American diet -- consisting of 45% of calories from carbs 41% from fat, with a high-carb, low-fat diet of 63% carbs and 19% fat.
Half of those eating the high-carb, low-fat diet also exercised -- 45 minutes of aerobic exercise, four times a week.
As you may expect, those exercising and eating the high-carb, low-fat plan lost a few more pounds despite eating more calories than the other group. The exercisers lost an average of 11 pounds compared with 7 pounds for the non-exercisers on the same diet. The high-carb, high-fat dieters' weight did not change significantly.
When allowed to eat all they wanted, those eating the high-carb, high-fat diet had about 2,825 calories a day. The high-carb, low-fat dieters that didn't exercise ate about 2,250. The high-carb, low-fat exercisers ate about 2,400 calories.
It's the Calories
These findings don't surprise two experts who were not involved in this research.
"It's not excess carbs that translates into more body weight, it's excess calories -- no matter where they come from," says Alice H. Lichtenstein, DSc, professor of nutrition at Tufts University and vice chairwoman of the nutrition committee of the American Heart Association. "And those on the typical American diet ate more calories.
"If you cut calories, you'll lose weight, even if you're not counting calories. And the difference between what was consumed in the low-fat, high-carb diet and the typical American diet was enough to translate to nearly a pound of weight loss a week," Lichtenstein tells WebMD. "If you're eating more fiber, you get filled up quicker."
While the high-carb, low-fat dieters started each day with a fiber supplement, the real difference that boosted their fiber intake to nearly 60 grams a day seemed to be in the choices of the carbs they had: So-called "complex" carbohydrate foods that included subtle changes such as whole-grain baked goods instead of those using "white" refined flour; they also had more choices in produce and leaner cuts of meats and skimmed dairy products.
"I'm not at all surprised by these findings because this study reinforces the scientific soundness of the recommendations that have been made by a large number of health organizations over the years: Watch the total amount of fat and increase high-complex carbs such as fruits, vegetables, and whole grains," says Cathy Moore, RD, MS, director of nutrition therapy at The Cleveland Clinic and a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association.
"It makes perfect sense that if doing those things, you're going to be able to lose weight. A lot of times, it's not necessary to count calories, as long as you focus on a difference in eating habits. Simple things like eating more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains means you're going to displace higher-calorie, high-fat foods and be less likely to overeat."
But in doing a new study that's not yet been published, Evans says he's finding that the major benefit may not be just from having more "complex" carbs and fiber.
"It turns out that it doesn't matter what form of carbs they have," he tells WebMD. "In a new study we're now doing, we're using more simple carbs -- high-glycemic bread and pasta -- and we're getting a similar pattern of weight loss. The key seems to be in limiting fat intake to 20% or less of their total calories."