Does Eat This, Not That Work for Weight Loss?


It may seem like I’m hung up on calories these days given the number of times I’ve written about them in the past weeks.  But I read a research article this weekend that brings the subject up again.  It questions whether the energy balance equation (you know, calories in vs. calories out = your weight) works for weight loss advice.

What I found interesting was the discussion of how our behaviors affect our energy balance.  It called into question the effectiveness of messages like, “Just one fewer cookie a day can add up to X pounds lost over a year.”

That appears to be one of the messages in the popular Eat This, Not That books.  That is, simply by making small changes in what we eat, we can solve weight struggles.  (Full disclosure: I haven’t read the books, just the marketing materials.  I also realize the differences in some featured foods isn’t small. More on that later.)

Jumping quickly to the conclusion of the research article:  It’s oversimplifying things to say just making small changes in calorie intake will add up to big changes over time.
What’s wrong with those pictures.

A few of things mess up messages like that.  Here are two:

  • Studies suggest we can’t automatically assume that if we alter one side of the equation – for example, cut our calories – we won’t unintentionally change the other side, too.  As in moving our bodies less.  Result: No real difference in energy balance.
  • Even if we do lose weight initially by making small changes in what we eat, the rate of loss eventually slows, and we often regain weight.  It’s thought that we start eating more, again not necessarily intentionally.  Researchers speculate we may get hungrier over time and eat more without realizing it.

So what does work?

From our perspective, an intentional healthy lifestyle is the best bet for healthy and permanent weight loss.  It’s not about obsession; it’s about a focus on taking care of ourselves.  Being focused on the whole because just making a change here or there probably won’t get us where we want in the long run.  That applies to a lot more than weight, too.

Do we need calorie info to help us do that?

There may be some value in a book like Eat This, Not That.  It seems to point out healthier choices sometimes, such as a homemade turkey sandwich vs. a deep-fried chicken parmesan sub. Might help someone who is really clueless about food.

If we eat frequently from their list of the ’20 Worst Foods in America,’ choosing differently would surely add up.  But do we need calorie information to help us change those choices?

As blogging partner Emily asked, “Doesn’t it make sense to sometimes choose based on calories — when one side is “average’ and the other side insane?”  My response:

  • Could common sense and listening to cues substitute? Some of what makes these choices qualify for the insane moniker is portion size.
  • Calories don’t give a full picture of eating well.  Here’s a bit on that in today’s Boston Globe.
  • What about the calorie-traumatized among us, which includes many (most?) women who struggle with eating and weight?  Consider the blog we featured last Friday on calories in student dining halls.

The bottom line

Overall, I really don’t think it matters whether we have a Krispy Kreme or Dunkin’ donut…even if one has fewer calories.  If we listen to our cues and eat in moderation, occasionally enjoying higher-calorie foods when we want them, differences like that won’t affect body weight.

If it did, we’d probably have solved our food/weight problems in this country years ago.  Women’s magazines have long featured these kinds of comparisons.  I should know.  I put one of them together many moons ago in my dieting days.

Have you read Eat This, Not That?  If so, did you find the book helpful and why or why not?

6 responses to “Does Eat This, Not That Work for Weight Loss?”

  1. Weight Loss » Blog Archive » Does Eat This, Not That Work for Weight Loss? says:

    […] Original post by Marsha […]

  2. etinca says:

    I have the original book & have also read the one for grocery shopping. IMHO the actual information in the books could be helpful if you’re checking out a specific item (or restaurant) but can be confusing if you read the whole thing. A few of the items that are ok in one book aren’t ok in another, based on the specific items they’re compared against. My takeaway from both books is that quite often what seems at first glance to be the healthier choice (particularly in restaurant food & prepared foods) isn’t. In those situations you have to be vigilant & aware of what you’re buying.

    As far as the effectiveness of making small changes – about 6 weeks ago I made the one small change of reading nutrition labels to select prepared items with lower amounts of sugars & simple carbs (the one piece of advice I’d stubbornly refused to do for at least 10 years!) & immediately began losing .5 to one pound a week of the stubborn 30 lbs I put on at menopause that I hadn’t been able to lose by any other method. And I don’t even eat all that much prepackaged food. I haven’t completely cut out sugar (can’t stand artificial sweeteners) or any specific food item. The lesson for me in that is that to start a steady weight loss, I needed to pick the one category I routinely have in my diet & find ways to cut back on it.

  3. Renata says:

    You asked:
    “But do we need calorie information to help us change those choices?”

    Not necessarily, but it can be a big eye opener. Only time will tell if calories stated on menus (such as that in effect in NYC) will make a difference in people’s food choices.

    But I’m with you on your approach. I think it can be good information, but it’s utility is limited and can be misleading.

  4. Very interesting. I picked up that book last time I was in the book store and was wondering if it was worth buying. I think it is so easy to oversimplify something that is unique for each person and a largely mental process. Sure eating some things instead of others is a good idea, but when you are comparing things like donuts, I don’t think it matters much.

  5. Marsha says:

    Best choices changing from one book to another could get confusing, that’s for sure. It’s like trying to compare prices at the grocery store without having that tag that tells us price per standard unit of volume or weight. I hate it when that happens. 🙂

    Thanks for everyone’s comments!

  6. Michelle Belill says:

    GREAT ARTICLE, Marsha! Our ancestors didn’t struggle with obesity the way we do now. Furthermore, they didn’t know what calories were and they certainly didn’t count them. They simply ate reasonable portions of REAL foods when they were hungry. Eating healthy and being healthy shouldn’t require a calculator or an advanced degree in mathematics. It does require some common sense and knowledge, however. Marsha, let’s keep fighting the good fight!

About the Author

Marsha Hudnall, MS, RDN, CD

If you’re looking for an embodiment of dedication disguised as obsession, look no further. Marsha is a registered dietitian who has spent the last four decades working to help women give up dieting rules and understand how to truly take care of themselves. Her mission in life is to help women learn to enjoy eating and living well, without worries about their weight. She encourages women to embrace their love of food, which you might call being a foodie. If so, it’s appropriate because being a foodie means you pay attention when you eat. That’s a recipe made in heaven for eating well. Marsha is the President and Co-Owner of Green Mountain at Fox Run.

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