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Forget Calories! Here’s Why Diet Quality Matters More, Study Says

December 29, 2023

When it comes to eating a healthy diet, what’s better—quality, or quantity? The age-old debate continues to be a heated one in the health and wellness industry, with experts debating whether focusing on calories or focusing on the quality of foods matters for long-term health. Although some experts might say that counting calories is more important, recent research does show that consistently eating a diet of high-quality foods is actually key to living a longer, healthier life.

The study, published by Tufts University researchers in Nature Communications, evaluated the quality of diets for around 48,000 subjects using Food Compass scores. The Food Compass provides a score for a food based on its nutritional value including nutrient ratios, ingredients used, vitamins, minerals, if the food was processed or includes additives, and more. When surveying the diets of each subject, researchers found that subjects with higher Food Compass scores (meaning higher quality foods in their diet) experienced lower blood pressure, blood sugar, blood cholesterol, body mass index, and hemoglobin A1c levels. They also experienced a lower risk of metabolic syndrome and cancer.

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Here’s what’s particularly interesting: while the Food Compass scores are evaluated based on numerous factors regarding nutritional value, it actually omits “outdated attributes” such as total calories. Instead of focusing so much on energy intake, the Food Compass looks at food from a holistic, quality perspective.

“Diet quality matters as there is scientific evidence that a low-quality diet with a large intake of highly processed foods is more closely associated with type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, obesity, and other comorbidities,” Maggie Michalczyk, RDN, founder of Once Upon a Pumpkin. “A high-quality diet abundant with minimally processed, whole foods may improve overall health outcomes not to mention lower our risk for different diseases and conditions.”

So…does this solve the age-old debate of quality versus quantity? Does a diet focusing on quality and ditching the calorie-counting apps actually the solution for long-term health?

Focus on quality and everything else falls into place.

Michalczyk says that when it comes to eating a quality diet, the “quantity” aspect will actually follow suit, given the types of foods you are (or aren’t) consuming.

“Many studies show that overall lower caloric intake may be an outcome of eating a high-quality diet due to the fact that highly processed foods typically are high in calories and low in nutrition,” says Michalczyk. ”A high-quality diet includes wholesome unprocessed foods which are usually lower in calories and packed with vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. In the long run, eating a high-quality diet may give you a bang for your buck with both higher nutrient value and lower caloric intake.”

If you’re looking to boost the quality of your meals, an easy way to get started is by implementing nutritious, whole foods into your daily meals.

“That may look like eating whole foods for breakfast such as avocado, eggs, and oatmeal, or dinner with salmon and greens,” Michalczyk says.

Snacks are also key for staying satiated throughout the day and can be an easy way to get in that extra boost of nutrition—like apples with almond butter, or celery with guacamole.

Related: The Best Snack Combination for Your Blood Sugar

Focus on consistency, not perfection.

While the Food Compass scores were high for subjects that ate a quality diet, they weren’t exactly perfect, which is key when thinking about eating a healthy diet long term. According to Michalczyk, it’s about being consistent most of the time while giving yourself the freedom to still enjoy foods you love.

“You should always include all foods you love in your diet with mindfulness of what is going to make you feel your best,” she says. “There will be weeks when this feels easy to do and other times when you might be eating a little less nutritious and that’s ok, that’s part of the balance and flexibility that comes with a low-stress relationship with food. Making healthy choices overall and creating a balance that works for you will help ensure that you’re reaping the benefits of a nutritious diet without striving for perfection.”

Plus, by incorporating more nutritious foods while still not restricting yourself, you may feel less stressed around food in the long run. Michalczyk says you may even find yourself gravitating towards those whole foods over time.

“After seeing how good they make you feel on a daily basis allows you to find a natural and intuitive balance between nutritious and foods that are considered more like treats,” she says.

Read next: 7 Healthy Dinners That Take 15 Minutes or Less — with No Pre-Cooked Ingredients

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