Effective diets should not involve too many choices. For a long time we’ve been advised that effective diets should include colorful plates with a wide variety of types of food choices.

New Thinking on the Most Effective Diets

The advice on effective diets has changed based on new research. The Berkeley Wellness Letter summarizes the reasons for this change on the most effective diets for weight maintenance:

  • “Eat a varied diet” has long been a bedrock of mainstream dietary advice, here and around the world.
  • The recommendation was based on the notion that if people don’t eat a wide range of foods, they may miss out on key nutrients and other substances that contribute to good health.
  • If your diet, day after day, consisted of only the same four or five foods, no matter how healthful, it would fall short.
  • That was more likely a problem, however, when our food choices were far more limited and nutrient deficiencies were common. Not so today.
  • Nowadays, encouraging people to eat a wide variety of foods may backfire and lead to consumption of more food, especially unhealthy items, and to weight gain.
  • This is according to an advisory from the American Heart Association (AHA), published in Circulation in September 2018. After reviewing research published since 2000, it concluded that there’s no consistent evidence that greater overall dietary diversity promotes healthy weight or optimal eating.
  • Instead of recommending eating a variety of foods, the AHA concluded that dietary guidance should emphasize adequate consumption of fresh or minimally processed plant foods, such as vegetables, fruit, beans, and whole grains, as well as low-fat dairy products, nuts, poultry, and fish—along the lines of the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet and the AHA’s own heart-healthy dietary advice.
  • There’s no reason to increase variety if that means adding red meat, refined grains, sweets, sugary drinks, and all the other highly processed foods beckoning at markets.

Here’s the advice from the American Heart Association on effective diets:

  • The preponderance of evidence does not support the notion of dietary diversity as an effective strategy to promote healthy eating patterns and healthy body weight.
  • Limited evidence suggests that dietary diversity may contribute to increased energy intake, suboptimal eating patterns, and weight gain in adult populations.
  • Given the current state of the science on dietary diversity and the insufficient data to inform recommendations on specific aspects of dietary diversity that may be beneficial or detrimental to healthy weight, it is appropriate to promote a healthy eating pattern that emphasizes adequate intake of plant foods, protein sources, low-fat dairy products, vegetable oils, and nuts and limits consumption of sweets, sugar-sweetened beverages, and red meats.

The AHA Summarized the Research on Effective Diets

  • Evidence from observational studies to date does not support benefits of greater dietary diversity for healthy weight or optimal eating pattern.
  • Short-term feeding studies show that exposure to a variety of foods may reduce sensory-specific satiation, increasing energy intake and food consumption in adult populations.
  • Limited evidence from observational studies suggests that greater dietary diversity is associated with greater energy intake, suboptimal eating patterns, and weight gain in adult populations.
  • Given the current state of the science on dietary diversity, it is appropriate to promote a healthy eating pattern that emphasizes adequate intake of plant foods, protein sources, low-fat dairy products, vegetable oils, and nuts and limits consumption of sweets, sugar-sweetened beverages, and red meats.

How to Avoid the Smorgasbord Effect

Having too many choices at a meal can lead to overconsumption. The reason may be that eating foods with different flavors and sensory qualities may delay the feeling of satiety and actually whet the appetite. Even when people feel full there always seems to be “room for dessert.” It’s also easier to overload your plate when you have a large number of choices. In contrast, you’re likely to eat less if you have less variety, since foods similar in taste and texture dull the palate.

How to avoid choice overload? Stick to your shopping list at the market, and skip the aisles filled with junk food. Be especially careful at all-you-can-eat buffets and parties where food is abundant. At home, serve a limited—but balanced—selection of healthful foods at meals. Using smaller plates also helps limit your choices and the total amount of food you serve yourself.

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