When we talk about getting a wide variety of foods, there are a few different ways this can be taken and interpreted based on the individual and their idea of what “variety” means for them. This can then muddle the conversation about how much variety one will need in their diet and the role that food variety holds regarding body weight and weight regulation.
Now, getting a wide variety of micronutrients is important. They provide us with adequate amounts of vitamins and minerals needed for overall health, wellness, and proper functioning. We know this.
Regarding the ongoing conversation on food variety as it relates to body fat, however, rather than being focused on micronutrient quality, this definition is focused more so on the commercially available food, snacks, and beverages that we’re constantly surrounded by and bombarded with in our current food environment. The presence of these highly palatable foods has only increased in recent years and doesn’t seem to be slowing down anytime soon.
This kind of diet variety may not be the good kind and could be a greatly overlooked factor playing into the rise of obesity and total caloric intake. This, in turn, has implications for long term health and weight regulation, so understanding the relationship that exists between the two can help us to prevent unnecessary weight gain and better control our eating behaviors.
Does Diet Variety Increase Our Intake?
There are studies that suggest a relationship between having a variety of different foods to choose from and one’s total food intake to follow. This has been shown with single-food items, but as of recently, little was known about the long-term ramifications and changes to body weight and body fat.
As we know, food variety and the availability of commercial food and snack items has risen dramatically – this, in turn, contributes to rising rates of obesity (alongside many other factors). It makes sense from a physical (food environment, convenience) and psychological (highly palatable foods, cravings) point of view how an increased food variety would be able to coax individuals to consume more. However, more can be said regarding the types of foods being consumed and their differing relationships to weight gain over time.
It’s about the types of foods that we have variety in.
In determining and measuring food variety, 10 food groups were formed and evaluated based on commonly used food frequency questionnaires. These 10 food groups are as follows:
- Breakfast foods (cereals, eggs, bacon, sausages)
- Lunch and dinner entrees (beef, pork, chicken, pasta, pizza, chilis, lunch meat)
- Sweets, snacks, and carbohydrates (ice cream, pies, cookies, candy, rice, fries, chips, cakes, etc)
- Condiments (peanut butter, butter, dressings, gravy)
- Energy-containing drinks (fruit juices, milk, soda, beer, wine)
- Dairy products
- Breakfast food condiments (milk, sugars)
- Beverage condiments (milk, creamer, sugars)
A Noteworthy Relationship
Within each food group that was looked at, a significant relationship was observed in that consuming greater variety of foods was correlated with an increased energy intake from those types of foods.
Upon closer inspection of these food groups, however, a high variety coming from 4 of the food groups was positively associated with body fatness as well: breakfast foods, sweets, snacks, & carbohydrates, lunch entrees, and condiments. Contrary to that, though, a high variety of foods coming from the vegetable group showed a negative relationship with energy intake and body fat.
While we can say “a calorie is a calorie,” there’s a huge difference to be observed between consuming highly palatable, energy dense foods versus consuming nutrient dense, whole food sources. This is especially so when we go and take our psychology around food and eating into consideration. These distinctions are a prime example of how our eating habits, and subsequent weight gain/loss, can be greatly impacted by not only the variety of foods we’re getting, but the types of foods getting variety in.
Dietary variety is described to be a double-edged sword when it comes to regulating energy intake, and rightfully so. Both positives and negatives can come from added variety – attention needs to be paid towards the food groups this variety is coming from. The most notable difference between the foods positively (snacks, sweets, carbohydrates, entrees, condiments) and negatively (vegetables) related to body fat and caloric intake was their energy density.
We no longer benefit from obtaining high food variety when we’re always surrounded by high calorie, commercially available foods and snacks. Now, what about when we were forced to hunt and gather, and food was scarce? Yep, food variety meant survival for us.
(Hunter-gatherers also didn’t have Chick fil A as an option… we have some wins here at least).
Finding balance within the diet can be a challenge in today’s food environment, but it’s very possible. This isn’t saying certain food groups are “bad,” by any means. Moderation is key! What’s more harmful is the quantities in which we’re consuming certain foods and the influences those choices have on our behaviors to follow and how we feel.
If you’re struggling to find a good balance, please reach out. We’re never too busy!
McCrory, M.A., Fuss, P.J., McCallum, J.E., et al. Dietary variety within food groups: association with energy intake and body fatness in men and women. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 1999; 69: 440-7.