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The Hard Truth
Of all the changes taking place on the food front, one of the most important concerns the balance between diet and exercise. It's still true that to maintain a healthy weight, calories consumed must equal calories burned. Tip that balance one way and you drop pounds; tip it the other way and you gain. Period. Paragraph.
But this summer a landmark study in the New England Journal of Medicine found that it's not just how much food you eat, but which kind, that influences weight gain. After adjusting for age, baseline body mass index and lifestyle factors such as exercise and sleep duration in 120,000 participants, the authors found that the foods most associated with adding pounds over a four-year period were french fries, potato chips, sugary drinks, meats, sweets and refined grains. The foods most associated with shedding pounds were yogurt, nuts, whole grains, fruits and vegetables. But there's more than simple caloric arithmetic at work here.
When you sit down to a meal, your brain is looking for nutrients, not calories, and will prod you to eat until you're satisfied. That's one of the many reasons it's harder to push away from a plate of fries or a bowl of ice cream than from a healthier meal of fruits, vegetables, grains and lean meats. A simple matter of digestive mechanics is at work too. High-fiber foods expand in the stomach, slowing digestion and augmenting satiety. That's the reason I try to eat fruit or a handful of nuts prior to a big meal. Consuming a controlled amount of calories from the right kind of food now helps avoid taking in many more calories from the wrong kind later.
Another hard truth is that despite what we think, there is probably not some elusive superfood out in a distant rain forest waiting to be discovered. That said, we do know of some extraordinary foods that are already available in abundance. Berries are increasingly seen as having a profound impact against age-related diseases, including cancer, cardiovascular illness, diabetes and mental decline, thanks to their high levels of antioxidants and anti-inflammatory properties. Broccoli is high in fiber and has been shown to have cholesterol-lowering benefits. It's also rich in sulfur compounds, which are good for the liver and thus strengthen the body's natural detoxification systems.
In the category of Things Your Mother Was Right About All Along, you really and truly should take your vitamins. We like to think that if we're smart, we can get all of our needed nutrients from what we eat. But judging by food diaries, this is true for only a small percentage of the population. What's more, while the body manufactures some vitamins nonnutritionally the way sunlight helps us generate vitamin D there is a long list of nutrients we can get only from food, including calcium, fiber, folate, iodine, iron, magnesium and potassium. Even if you chart every morsel that goes in your mouth, I promise you that a daily multivitamin is an easier and more reliable way to ensure that you're not leaving anything out.
Finally no surprise you should be serious about exercising. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that all adults get a minimum of 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity like brisk walking per week, which comes down to just over 20 minutes per day. As an alternative, you could go for 75 minutes a week of a vigorous activity like jogging. Muscle-strengthening exercises two or more days a week are also essential to maintaining fitness and building lean muscle mass, which makes your metabolism more efficient. And keep in mind that we all overestimate the caloric benefit of exercise. A 160-lb. (73 kg) person who puts in a full hour of low-impact aerobics burns 365 calories, which is not bad, but all that work is entirely erased if you reward yourself with a muffin instead of an apple after class.
No one pretends that achieving and maintaining an ideal weight is an easy thing to do, but the list of rules to get you there is nonetheless simple: Eat in moderation; choose foods that look like they did when they came out of the ground (remember, there are no marshmallow trees); be an omnivore (there are multiple food groups for a reason); and get some exercise. Human beings are the only species in the world that has figured out how to be in complete control of its own food supply. The challenge now is to make sure the food doesn't take control of us.