NEW YORK (Reuters Health) – Reducing people’s junk food options helped them cut back on calories but didn’t help them lose weight in a recent study.
“Limiting variety was helpful for reducing intake for that type of food group, but it appeared that compensation occurred in other parts of the diet,” said Dr. Hollie Raynor at the University of Tennessee, who led the study.
In other words, people tend to make up for the fewer calories in the restricted food group by eating more calories from other types of foods.
The results offer a cautionary note to dieters limiting their food variety, such as on a low-carbohydrate diet, to be watchful of all calories coming in and not just those from the targeted food group.
Previous studies have shown that people with less variety in their diets tend to be more successful in losing weight and keeping it off, said Dr. Raynor.
She said she wanted to see if restricting the options for high-calorie, low-nutrition foods, such as ice cream, cookies and chips, could help people lose weight.
She and her colleagues asked 200 overweight and obese adults to make lifestyle changes aimed at losing weight. These included participating in regular group meetings that discussed healthy behaviors, eating a calorie-reduced diet and increasing physical activity.
As reported online May 2nd in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, half the subjects were also told to limit the junk food in their diet to just two options. The theory is that monotony on the menu leads to a lack of interest in the food.
“It’s clear the more variety you have, the more you eat,” said Dr. Alexandra Johnstone, a researcher at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, who was not involved in the research.
The study lasted 18 months, and the people in the limited junk food group managed to eat fewer types of treats each day — two to three — than the other group — around four. They also ate fewer calories each day that came from junk foods.
At six and 12 months into the study, the people in the low-variety group ate about 100 fewer junk food calories each day compared to controls, and 80 fewer junk food calories each day by the end of the study.
Both groups consumed fewer total calories over the course of the study than at the beginning and were able to lose weight.
But the overall reduction in calories and the weight loss — about 10 pounds — were the same in each group, demonstrating that restricting the junk food choices did not offer any extra benefits over the lifestyle changes that the people had made.
“It makes sense to try and reduce the amount of variety in the diet, but human beings enjoy eating, so they will find other food components to consume than the ones that are being limited,” Dr. Johnstone told Reuters Health.
Dr. Johnstone said that to make a limited variety diet work, it will be important to also limit the portion sizes at meals.
Dr. Raynor said it wasn’t apparent where the compensation was occurring in the other food groups. She said there’s a need for more research to understand how people’s behaviors change when they’re trying to limit, say, carbohydrates or sugar-sweetened beverages.
“Do they compensate or go, ‘OK, I’m just consuming less calories.’ It is an area we’re developing a better appreciation for,” she told Reuters Health.
Dr. Raynor said the message to dieters is that if they are trying to lose weight by restricting the variety in their food choices, they should be aware of their other food choices so that it doesn’t undermine their efforts.
Am J Clin Nutr 2012.