You may have heard about a recent study that made headlines, proclaiming that produce eaters aren’t immune to weight gain. Unfortunately the sound bites didn’t tell the whole story. The truth is the link between produce and weight gain (or loss) all depends on exactly how you eat those fruits and veggies.
This particular study followed over 370,000 adults in 10 European countries for five years, and found that those who ate the most fruits and vegetables were no less likely to gain weight. On average the subjects gained about one pound per year. Among the men, weight gain dipped a little as their fruit and veggie intakes rose, but that association disappeared when the researchers accounted for the men's daily calorie intakes. Among the women, those who reported eating the most veggies gained more weight, but the researchers believe this could be because some of the women were on diets that encouraged eating lots of vegetables, and going “on” and “off” those diets over time can cause weight to yo-yo, or even increase if more weight is gained back than was lost.
The bottom line here is that it’s the overall balance of your diet and consistency over time that counts, not just your fruit and veggie intake. If you eat more than it takes to support a healthy weight, you will weigh more, whether the excess food comes from fruits, veggies, whole grains or even protein. Here’s how it works. In a nutshell, every day your body needs a finite amount of raw materials in the form of carbohydrates, protein and fat. If you consume more of any of these than your body needs to fuel and maintain your ideal weight, the “leftovers” that aren’t needed will either feed excess body fat, keeping it alive and well, or fill up your fat cells even more, causing weight gain.
The amount of carbs, protein and fat your body needs to support your ideal weight are based on a number of factors, including your age, sex, height and activity level—young, tall, active men need more, and petite, older, less active women need less (think of the raw materials and energy needed to construct and fuel a compact car versus an SUV). If your body is more like a compact car and you consume the raw materials needed for a sedan, that excess goes straight to your fat cells and if you continue to eat that way you’ll keep the weight on.
To get to your ideal weight and stay there the goal is to eat the amount from every food group (fruits, veggies, whole grains, lean protein, heart healthy fat) that’s right for supporting your body. Eating too little means not enough raw materials and fuel show up for work, and that leads to feeling tired and run down, and can create unwanted side effects like a weaker immune system, bone and muscle loss. And eating too much, well, we’ve already covered that.
In other words, if you simply load up on fruits and veggies but you’re eating more food overall than your body can burn or use to support your ideal weight, that produce can’t offset the effects of the surplus. On the other hand, if you aren’t eating enough produce and you’re downing too many grains, swapping those proportions can help bring you closer to the balance that best supports your ideal weight—check out my previous post to learn more.
The best way to reap the health benefits of produce and achieve long-term weight loss results is to consistently eat the right amount of fruits and veggies, along with the right amount of all the other food groups to support your body’s ideal weight. In my newest book I created a plan that does just that. While the book includes info about how to modify the plan based on your body’s needs (sex, age, height, activity level) Shape.com has excerpted the basic plan, which is appropriate for most moderately active women. You’ll see how the balance of each ingredient, like the amount of veggies compared to the portions of grains, gives your body enough nourishment to keep you feeling energized and healthy, but not enough to feed the fat cells you want to shrink—a win-win for your waistline and your health and a realistic approach you can maintain long-term. If you give it a try please let me know how you feel and how your body responds.
Cynthia Sass is a registered dietitian with master's degrees in both nutrition science and public health. Frequently seen on national TV, she's a SHAPE contributing editor and nutrition consultant to the New York Rangers and Tampa Bay Rays. Her latest New York Times best seller is Cinch! Conquer Cravings, Drop Pounds and Lose Inches.