Improving your diet often suggests a daunting revamp of every food you eat, but changing just one thing will help you lose weight and get significantly healthier, finds a new study in the Annals of Internal Medicine.
A group of researchers from the University of Massachusetts Medical School zeroed in on fiber, since previous studies have shown it can help people feel more full, eat less and improve some metabolic markers like blood pressure, cholesterol levels and blood sugar.
They recruited 240 people who showed signs of prediabetes and randomly assigned them to the American Heart Association (AHA) diet, which is currently recommended for those at risk of developing diabetes, or to eating more fiber. The AHA group focused on decreasing their daily calorie intake in order to lose weight, and they were provided with goals to limit saturated fat. The fiber group was simply asked to eat more foods rich in fiber, such as fruits, vegetables and whole grains, to reach a quota of at least 30 grams of fiber per day. Neither group was told to change their exercise habits.
After a year, both groups lost about the same amount of weight. Even more surprisingly, the people in the study also showed similar drops in cholesterol levels, blood pressure, blood sugar and inflammation. “By changing one thing, people in the fiber group were able to improve their diet and lose weight and improve their overall markers for metabolic syndrome,” says study author Dr. Yunsheng Ma.
While he’s not yet ready to say that people at risk of developing diabetes should ditch the AHA diet and focus just on eating more fiber, Ma's study does suggest an alternative way of getting healthier. “I think we have to change the paradigm about recommendations,” he says. “Telling people to reduce this or reduce that is just too hard to do.”
Ma notes that while dietary guidelines to lower the risk of various diseases have been around for decades, obesity, heart problems and diabetes remain the most common conditions affecting Americans. “Very few people reach the goals that are recommended,” he says. Asking them to focus on eating more of a certain food—rather than telling them what not to eat—may help people to think more positively about changes in their diet, and make the goals more achievable. From there, it might be easier to make the other changes, such as those included in the AHA diet. “[Adding fiber] might be one new idea for how to get people to adhere to a diet,” he says. That’s the first step, and perhaps most important, to eating healthier.