Fat Foods: Understanding Weight Gain and Loss

Losing weight is never easy, but new research suggests that “fat foods” are part of the problem.

  • Discern the good fats from the bad fats with this handy "Fat Foods" chart.
  • Along with reduced refined grains, a weight-loss diet should include plenty of healthy fats and no trans fats.
    Photo by StockFood
  • A diet based on vegetables, whole grains and healthful fats is good for maintaining a healthy weight as well as fighting inflammation.
    Photo by iStock

If you’ve ever tried to diet to lose weight, you know the advice about what to eat changes all the time. (Butter is good! Butter is bad! Butter is back!) But one weight-loss truism has held up for many years: Calories in, calories out. For years, conventional advice has asserted that the most effective way to lose weight is to burn more calories than we consume. Taking that into consideration, what we’ve been hearing lately is truly startling: Maybe weight loss isn’t all about counting calories after all. Recent studies are shedding light on the fact that certain foods cause us to gain weight in ways that aren’t explained by calories alone. Some experts now suggest a better strategy for losing weight is to focus not on eating less overall, but on eating less of certain problem foods.

What Makes Us Gain Weight?

One author who has written extensively on this subject is Gary Taubes, author of the essay “The Science of Obesity: What Do We Really Know About What Makes Us Fat?” (published in the medical journal BMJ in 2013) and the 2011 book Why We Get Fat. Taubes has written in detail about why our current approach to weight loss (particularly eating less) just isn’t working. He says that to figure out how to lose weight, scientific research needs to focus on the specific mechanisms that cause our bodies to start storing more fat.

Interestingly, research suggests that how we gain weight appears to have a lot to do with our hormones, and one hormone in particular—insulin. This is where our specific food choices become relevant. When we eat refined grains, sugar and starchy vegetables such as potatoes, our blood sugar rises quickly, producing higher levels of the hormone insulin—over time excess insulin is associated with weight gain. To lose weight, Taubes says, a major strategy should be eating fewer refined carbohydrates.

More than Food

Another recent article about how various foods can impact weight loss appeared in the Journal of the American Medical Association in June 2014. (The authors, David S. Ludwig and Mark I. Friedman, also wrote about it in a high-profile article for The New York Times called “Always Hungry? Here’s Why.”) The authors support other researchers’ premise that the quality of our food is more important than the quantity: “Attempts to lower body weight without addressing the biological drivers of weight gain, including the quality of the diet, will inevitably fail for most individuals.”

Like the authors of the other studies, these authors attribute our obesity problem to too much insulin from too many refined carbohydrates, especially in processed foods. But that’s not all. They also studied other quality-based drivers of excess weight: our unhealthy balance of fats (most of us need to consume more omega-3s, fewer omega-6s and to eliminate trans fats); our underconsumption of protein and important nutrients; as well as other lifestyle factors, such as lack of sleep and too much stress.

So what can we take from all this information? Obesity and weight loss are complicated issues, and science uncovers new questions faster than it can determine certain answers. But one fairly firm conclusion we can draw is that we should all eat fewer processed foods, especially starchy or sugary ones.

11/22/2014 10:18:34 AM

Another confusing article. Some bits from Taubes who is a LC guy (who would propose meat is okay), some bits from the famous "Nurses" study (yeah, a really healthy bunch there), then back to your very "standard" "don't eat meat" "eat whole grains" lecture. Please.... Phelps needs to get up to speed. I think Foodrules, grax.mccoar and rcfjr have some really good points and could have written a better article.

11/11/2014 3:40:11 PM

What about grass-fed beef and pastured pigs? They have a high omega 3 %. And when 'unrefined grains' is mentioned, could you give some examples? There is a bit of confusion about what is meant. Thanks!

11/11/2014 2:27:34 PM

Wait ... we "underconsume" protein, and meat is on the bad food list? The "Best choices" contain low protein except yogurt which is moderate protein. Something(s) is/are wrong with this picture starting with not enough carnitine.

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