Variety vs Simplicity: The Key to Success
©Jeff Novick, MS, RD
“Variety” may be the “spice of life” but “simplicity” is truly the “key to health”
Many cultures around the world have survived, (and even thrived) on very limited food supplies with very limited varieties of the foods. Not only the Okinawans and Chinese centenarians on mostly sweet potatoes but also the Tarahumara’s & the Pima’s in the Sierra Madre’s Mountains of Mexico on corn and beans, the Papau of New Guinea, the Irish on potatoes, etc, And of course, the simple variety available to them changed somewhat over the course of the year.
The negative aspect of this is that “if” the soil happens to be deficient in a mineral, then there is a greater chance for deficiency of that mineral. There are two well known examples of this happening including the problem with iodine in the Great Lakes “Goiter Belt” of America, and selenium in an area of China.
However, even if you or I were to select a diet with very little variety, the likelihood of this happening to anyone today is much less because even if we choose few foods, these few foods would be coming from all over the country and/or world. We do not get our produce just from the local area.
The “proven” advantages of this is that reducing food variety, reduces food intake. So, it is a great strategy for someone wanting to reduce their caloric intake.
In fact, the food industry takes advantage of this in reverse. Its a phenomenon known as the “salad bar” effect. They know that the more varieties of their product they make available to you, the more you will buy and the more you will consume (~25%).
Over the last 25 years of following the principles of “healthful living”, I often hear the following comment…
“Jeff, this is SIMPLE for you to do and follow because you have been doing it for so LONG”.
To which I respond…
“You have it backwards, the reason I have been able to do this for so LONG is because I have always kept it so SIMPLE.”
Well, turns out that maybe I am correct as my personal philosophy and thoughts were just recently supported by an interesting study that was done. These results may also be able to help many of you by pointing out the “key” component to following a program of healthful living successfully.
This study was designed to test the theory that very simple, uncomplicated diets would result in higher levels of compliance/adherence and weight loss in an outpatient setting then diets with more variety and complexity. The study was a realistic test of what can be achieved by dietary treatment alone for obese patients because the patients were typical of the general population who are trying to lose weight. They traveled to the clinic at their own expense, neither paid nor received money, and bought the food they ate at normal retail outlets. No drug or surgical treatment was offered and no exercise or behavioral therapy programs were provided.
The patients were randomized to one of three diets, each of which was designed to produce an initial energy deficit sufficient to produce weight loss. The three diets were of increasing variety and consisted of……
1) a very simple diet (VSD) which included just one food;
2) the same very simple diet (VSD+V) with added variety of fruits and vegetables; and
3) a typical conventional diet (TCD).
The patients completing the trial in the simple diet group achieved the highest overall mean weight loss (~25 lbs in 16 weeks). Compliance/adherence was similar for the two simple diets but much lower for the typical conventional diet. It was easier for the subjects to stick to the simple diets.
The authors expected that patients on the simple diet with added variety would have a greater weight loss than those on the the simplest diet as it was still simple but much less boring and patients were more likely to comply with it. However, the greatest weight loss was in the patients on the simplest diet alone.
While neither the authors of the study nor I am recommending anyone to live on a diet of just one food, the study does make a very interesting and key point. And that is, that the simpler the diet, the greater the compliance and the greater the results. The two simplest diets produced the greatest compliance and the greatest results. The typical complex diet had the lowest compliance and produced the least amount of weight loss.
The more we try to complicate our diets and/or lifestyle, the harder they become to follow. The key to any diet or lifestyle program is simplicity. Very few of us have the time and/or energy to spend extra hours in the kitchen or in the food stores. Nor do we have the time to learn 100′s of new recipes and food products.
So, don’t try to complicate your program of healthful living.
Find out what works for you and stick to it. Create simple meals based around vegetables, fruits, whole grains and legumes.
Keep your overall program and menu simple. Look for variety within each of the food groups by using different varieties of vegetables, fruits, legumes and whole grains over the course of a day or a week.
As a mentor of mine once said, “this program is not supposed to become your life, it is supposed to give you your life back”.
So, Keep It Simple!!
Because simplicity REALLY is….
“The Key To Health”