Home Health and Health Care Study: “There Are Good Foods And Bad Foods”

Study: “There Are Good Foods And Bad Foods”

by Erika Nicole Kendall

Now, I’ve said this before. I’m a calorie counter. Not so much in the traditional sense of people who calorie count forever, but I used calorie counting to teach me about food. I know what kinds of foods are extremely caloric, which means to use them with caution. I know what kinds of foods are loaded with nutrients – which also happen to be extremely light on calories – so I use them in abundance. With the right balance, I can easily convert away from calorie counting and move on with my life.

That being said, I was intrigued by this study that appeared on the FB page. Feel free to skim – I emboldened what I thought was most important:

Credit: Yvetta Fedorova

The new research, by five nutrition and public health experts at Harvard University, is by far the most detailed long-term analysis of the factors that influence weight gain, involving 120,877 well-educated men and women who were healthy and not obese at the start of the study. In addition to diet, it has important things to say about exercise, sleep, television watching, smoking and alcohol intake.

The study participants — nurses, doctors, dentists and veterinarians in the Nurses’ Health Study, Nurses’ Health Study II and the Health Professionals Follow-up Study — were followed for 12 to 20 years. Every two years, they completed very detailed questionnaires about their eating and other habits and current weight. The fascinating results were published in June in The New England Journal of Medicine.

The analysis examined how an array of factors influenced weight gain or loss during each four-year period of the study. The average participant gained 3.35 pounds every four years, for a total weight gain of 16.8 pounds in 20 years.

“This study shows that conventional wisdom — to eat everything in moderation, eat fewer calories and avoid fatty foods — isn’t the best approach,” Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian, a cardiologist and epidemiologist at the Harvard School of Public Health and lead author of the study, said in an interview. “What you eat makes quite a difference. Just counting calories won’t matter much unless you look at the kinds of calories you’re eating.”

Dr. Frank B. Hu, a nutrition expert at the Harvard School of Public Health and a co-author of the new analysis, said: “In the past, too much emphasis has been put on single factors in the diet. But looking for a magic bullet hasn’t solved the problem of obesity.”

Also untrue, Dr. Mozaffarian said, is the food industry’s claim that there’s no such thing as a bad food.

“There are good foods and bad foods, and the advice should be to eat the good foods more and the bad foods less,” he said. “The notion that it’s O.K. to eat everything in moderation is just an excuse to eat whatever you want.”

The study showed that physical activity had the expected benefits for weight control. Those who exercised less over the course of the study tended to gain weight, while those who increased their activity didn’t. Those with the greatest increase in physical activity gained 1.76 fewer pounds than the rest of the participants within each four-year period.

But the researchers found that the kinds of foods people ate had a larger effect over all than changes in physical activity.

“Both physical activity and diet are important to weight control, but if you are fairly active and ignore diet, you can still gain weight,” said Dr. Walter Willett, chairman of the nutrition department at the Harvard School of Public Health and a co-author of the study.

As Dr. Mozaffarian observed, “Physical activity in the United States is poor, but diet is even worse.”

Now, I’m skeptical because I’ve seen several different sources eviscerate the Nurses’ Health Study, so I’d love to see the details of this study myself. (Those of you with access to the New England Journal of Medicine, hint hint…) That doesn’t change the fact that it feels like they’re finally hitting on the right points to me. Calories matter, true, but what kinds of calories are we talking here? What are they doing inside your body?

The study goes on:

The beauty of the new study is its ability to show, based on real-life experience, how small changes in eating, exercise and other habits can result in large changes in body weight over the years.

On average, study participants gained a pound a year, which added up to 20 pounds in 20 years. Some gained much more, about four pounds a year, while a few managed to stay the same or even lose weight.

Participants who were overweight at the study’s start tended to gain the most weight, which seriously raised their risk of obesity-related diseases, Dr. Hu said. “People who are already overweight have to be particularly careful about what they eat,” he said.

The foods that contributed to the greatest weight gain were not surprising. French fries led the list: Increased consumption of this food alone was linked to an average weight gain of 3.4 pounds in each four-year period. Other important contributors were potato chips (1.7 pounds), sugar-sweetened drinks (1 pound), red meats and processed meats (0.95 and 0.93 pound, respectively), other forms of potatoes (0.57 pound), sweets and desserts (0.41 pound), refined grains (0.39 pound), other fried foods (0.32 pound), 100-percent fruit juice (0.31 pound) and butter (0.3 pound).

Also not too surprising were most of the foods that resulted in weight loss or no gain when consumed in greater amounts during the study: fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Compared with those who gained the most weight, participants in the Nurses’ Health Study who lost weight consumed 3.1 more servings of vegetables each day.

But contrary to what many people believe, an increased intake of dairy products, whether low-fat (milk) or full-fat (milk and cheese), had a neutral effect on weight.

But, consistent with the new study’s findings, metabolism takes a hit from refined carbohydrates — sugars and starches stripped of their fiber, like white flour. When Dr. David Ludwig [Erika’s note: Oh, this guy?] of Children’s Hospital Boston compared the effects of refined carbohydrates with the effects of whole grains in both animals and people, he found that metabolism, which determines how many calories are used at rest, slowed with the consumption of refined grains but stayed the same after consumption of whole grains.


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Keiji Earley July 21, 2011 - 10:00 AM

I completely agree. While cutting calories can get you to lose weight (like with that Taco Bell diet), the foods still have negative health effects: cholesterol, excess fat/sodium/what-have-you. So a skinny person can still be really unhealthy if they eat few calories, but not enough fruits and veggies, food that provides the right nutrients to keep all the small processes of your different cells working correctly.

Shante July 21, 2011 - 11:09 AM

As far as I am concerned eating everything in moderation doesn’t mean I can eat what I want when I want. It means eat more of the good than the “bad” (I hate calling food good or bad btw) and once in a while enjoy the “bad”. Some people take moderation to mean once a day, week, month or year. Personally if it works for one it doesn’t mean it will work for all. Viewing it in that manner I agree with the study. I have a different relationship with food than most though being surrounded by “bad” food all the time.

It might just be me but I am sick of this rotating schedule of what food is bad and what is good. Now every where you turn dairy is the it food that is good for your weight. Next year I imagine it will be something else.

Erika Nicole Kendall July 21, 2011 - 11:14 AM

Depends on how “good” and “bad” are qualified. Personally, I think defining certain qualities negatively (as “bad”) makes it easier fr us to understand that YES, some things need to be avoided because the consequences are greater than what makes sense.

Shante July 21, 2011 - 12:59 PM

I personally prefer referring to whether or not something is nutrient dense or not. I guess you could say that is just another way of calling something good or bad but I disagree. If you are defining something good or bad based off of lets say the amount of fat people will often say coconut oil is bad but in reality it isn’t. Now this is my opinion but I also do not think butter is bad. I would rather have butter than some margarine. I believe calling something good or bad is truly demonizing food and it doesn’t help anyone to do that. So I found two articles that I think articulate what I am trying to say better than I have the time to.


Erika Nicole Kendall July 21, 2011 - 1:05 PM

We can agree to disagree. I don’t think butter is bad, nor do I think coconut oil is bad, and I think referring to “bad foods” as “demonizing them” is a little excessive.

LifeBliss Lisa February 28, 2012 - 2:08 PM

Shante, I agree with you. For most of us, this good food bad food thing is a raging failure, and like your link to the Grist article suggests, it changes over and over again. What’s good today is bad tomorrow, so we seriously can not take the good-bad classifications seriously. Besides, who decides? Reliable sources? Usually no, just corporate interests.

However, when we say some food is good or bad, it would be helpful if people consider for whom, and for what cause? For example, butter might not be so good for me if I’m trying to lose some weight. But it’s not a bad food for everyone. Maybe eggs are bad for someone with sky-high cholesterol. But eggs are good for those of us with healthy cholesterol numbers, within commonsense reason. I also hate the term “in moderation” because it has been bastardized to mean something else completely from the original meaning.

Daphne July 21, 2011 - 2:11 PM

I have some concerns with labeling foods that are unprocessed/minimally processed as good/bad. It’s one thing to say Twinkies or white bread are “bad” for you, it’s another to generalize it to all bread or any type of sugar (I’ve read naturally occurring fructose, in fruit, labeled as “bad” by some). To me, it ties into the pathology of eating and nutrition that’s been embraced and propagated by those in the health and nutrition industrial complex.

That’s not to say I advocate eating anything just because you can. But the language around eating is troubling to me, especially when I hear someone say, “Oh, I’ve been BAD” as if to imply they deserve punishment or something.

As for this study, I give the automatic side-eye to conclusions derived from the Nurses’ Health Study. I, unfortunately, don’t have access to the NEJM, though.

molly July 21, 2011 - 8:59 PM

I wouldn’t be surprised if this got shred up by other sources. It’s not in the Food-Fat industrial complex’s interest to say eating their packaged food is bad. The more I read your arguments against “all in moderation,” the more on board I become. To most, it seems to mean that as long as they eat a salad at lunch and whole wheat toast for breakfast, it’s okay to have a little KFC for dinner… plus cookies, crackers, cheese food and various “meats” throughout the day. Don’t forget your woodchip icecream before bed!

Stefanie July 23, 2011 - 8:19 PM

Hello Erika,
This is my first time visiting your site and I am glad that I found it. Congratulations to you for accomplishing your goals. Losing weight is a battle too many people are taking on and it goes across the age, gender and racial lines.
In regards to the article that you posted, the statement that struck out to me the most is the one about working out and being moderately active but if the diet is poor, you can GAIN weight. That’s me. Also, I agree that eating in moderation for most can be an excuse to eat what they want. Again, that’s me. So, after working out for over a year consistently and not losing much weight and gaining a bit at one point, I knew that if I did not want to be 200+ pounds on a 5’3″ frame, I had to make some drastic changes. So, I have chosen to eat fish, chicken and some turkey as my meats. I am eating Kashi cereal with skim milk. I am eating veggies as often as possible and have upped my water intake. I have some good muscle under this fat that has been built but it’s hard to notice that when a good amount of fat is still on my body. I made this decision after considering weight loss surgery. I prayed to God to give me some direction and the one question I was compelled to ask myself was: “have you tried everything possible (within reason) to lose weight?” and the only answer I had was ‘no.’ This week is my first week making this commitment but so far so good and I do have a goal and I am excited to reach it. I know every day won’t be easy and I have already been tested (family event yesterday had me stressed) but I will give every day I wake up my best effort. I have already lost 2.5 pounds and I’m happy about that. Thank you for posting this article and I will continue to visit your site. Black girls want to feel good, look good, and live good too!!!

alicia March 4, 2012 - 3:37 PM

“and the advice should be to eat the good foods more and the bad foods less” = moderation.

“The notion that it’s O.K. to eat everything in moderation is just an excuse to eat whatever you want.”

ok?? lol.
personally, none of this was news to me. maybe it would be helpful to someone who is trying to lose weight eating “bad” foods and not understanding the nutritional aspects, but i think for the most part people who attempt that approach eventually jump on the healthy foods bandwagon as well.

lynaya May 9, 2012 - 8:20 AM

I respectfully disagree with several commenters. I agree with the article’s claim that refined, fiber-stripped foods are not nutritious, and therefore they are bad. Do I still enjoy eating them from time to time? Absolutely. Ultimately food either helps or hinders, there is no in between. What is the nutritional benefit of french fries? None. I don’t think calling food bad is going to deter anyone from eating it. The bottom line (what I took frm the article) is this: eat mainly fruits and vegetables daily. That “once in a while” so-called bad food very well may catch up with you. So rather than every week or month, I will choose to limit them to a few times a year. As a woman on a weight loss journey, it makes a lot of sense to me.

lizzie April 16, 2013 - 9:25 AM

So…wait… are we saying adding 500 calories of nuts/yoghurt per day/week/whatever would make you gain less weight than 500 calories of chocolate/ice cream? Does this study involve people eating an equivalent number of calories, but different kinds of food? Or are the people who eat more wholesomely consuming, over all, less calories?

lizzie April 16, 2013 - 9:27 AM

(first time commenting but I’ve been loving your site for a while now.. finally feel like I’m getting in control of my eating habits and down 15lbs thanks to your wonderful info. Keep it coming xx)

Erika Nicole Kendall April 16, 2013 - 11:35 AM

I think we have to remember that different *kinds* of calories produce different *kinds* of outcomes.

I’m also pretty certain that the “thermic effect of feeding” plays a role, here. A more fibrous, more nutritious food is probably going to have a different physiological response than, say, one that just slides down your throat and melts into your stomach acid.

Rachelle April 16, 2013 - 10:15 AM

I agree with some of the comments here. As a person who has struggled with labeling MYself “good” or “bad” based on the foods I eat, I find it more helpful to label them as nutritious or not, or healthy and unhealthy. For people who have disordered eating habits, those types of thoughts can become internalizing. For people who have a fairly healthy relationship with food, I don’t think it bothers them so much. I disagree that people who lose weight by eating unhealthy foods eventually jump on the healthy foods bandwagon. Research would say that if you are one of those folks, you are probably just going to gain all your weight back and not be on any healthy bandwagon. I do think some people take the eat everything in moderation thing too far. I just wish we could encourage people to eat more healthy foods than unhealthy foods on a consistent basis. That requires people to really take a look at the foods they eat though. I do have access to the NEJM, get it every month actually, so I’m excited to go read the article for myself.

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