Is Variety the Spice of Life?

August 14, 2018 in Foodland Chronicles, Weight Management by Joyce Bunderson

Eating a variety of foods has been a long-term principle of healthy, balanced eating. This public health precept was popularized in the early 20th century in response to the prevalence of nutrient inadequacies. One example would be getting the essential amino acids by eating a grain and a legume, for example. Today’s world has different problems; of course, one of the problems is over consumption. Another is the surfeit of highly processed foods.

I must admit that I’ve never questioned the concept of consuming a variety of foods. Certainly, it just makes sense not to eat a diet of only potatoes; rice or bananas – you’re going to end up with a nutrient deficiency, if you do it too long. But to illustrate that I stumbled upon one of the very same snags of variety as the researchers have validated in the study that I’m referring to today, I will share a little story with you. We don’t go out to eat frequently, but from time to time, I’m just lazy/exhausted and don’t feel like cooking. Years ago, when an exhausted day struck my cooking vigor, I would choose to go to the local Chuck-A-Rama. (Note: This choice was made in spite of something about the word ‘chuck’ in a food restaurant’s name. I know it’s about “chuck wagon;” but it’s not an appealing word for me.) If you’re not familiar with this restaurant, it’s like a buffet or smorgasbord. I chose the Chuck-A-Rama because they had every kind of salad; and a jillion nicely presented options. What I eventually discovered, however, was that every time I went there, I ate many good choices and a taste or two of not so healthy choices; it all added up to way too many calories. I’d make up my mind not to eat too much the next time; but time and again, I’d end up eating more than I had hoped. It was as though all the choices beckoned me to have a taste. Alas, I recognized that my determination was weaker than the beckoning of the variety of choices; we ultimately choose a different style restaurant on a too exhausted to cook day.

What made me think of this story is new research published in Circulation (Circulation. 2018;138:00–00. DOI: 10.1161/CIR.0000000000000595) on August 11, 2018. The researchers have spent a great deal of effort in defining terms and reviewing literature in trying to tease out a real answer about whether variety should be a sought after ideal of public health nutrition. What the researchers discovered is that greater dietary diversity is associated with suboptimal eating patterns; eating patterns higher in processed foods, refined grains, and sugar-sweetened beverages and lower intakes of minimally processed foods, such as fish, fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Further they found an association with weight gain and obesity in adult populations.

It seems to me that they are not really proving that variety is a problem in itself; they are proving that if you include such things as sweets, sugar-sweetened beverages, red meats, and highly processed foods in the variety spread, people will choose them more than if they weren’t included. That seems a no-brainer.

The researchers say that nutritionists should promote a healthy eating pattern that emphasizes adequate intake of plant foods, low-fat dairy products, vegetable oils, nuts and legumes and limits consumption of sweets, sugar-sweetened beverages, and red meats. The majority of the studies that they reviewed showed that serving a wider variety of foods (aka Chuck-A-Rama) led to an increase in total food intake.

It’s really interesting that just adding catsup to French fries or whipped cream to brownies decreased sensory satiety (feeling of being full) and increased intake by nearly 40%. Ouch!!!

You may want to read the entire publication, but let me just quickly share their summary.

“• 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. “

Now, having included all that; I’d like to make a personal, editorial comment. If a person is choosing foods that are not highly processed and mostly plant-based foods, I can’t see a huge danger in variety. Certainly a variety of fruits or vegetables seems to me to provide a variety of nutrients. So let’s do as researchers always do, wait for the follow-up research before cutting our variety of fruits and vegetables. Sure, let go of the variety of processed foods; and maybe stay away from a source of a large variety of foods all being offered at a single meal (aka Chuck-A-Rama). But the variety of nature’s bounty seems to be part of the spice of life and a vehicle to deliver a large array of phytonutrients.