Whole Grains = Losing Weight? The Cheerios Story.

At the moment, I have a box of Multi Grain Cheerios on the counter. I mostly eat it for breakfast, although today I had it for lunch since I had chicken and arugula quesadillas for breakfast.

Anyways, Cheerios advertises this particular kind of cereal by saying that people who choose their kind of foodstuff are thinner.

The back of the box, which claims that the cereal can help you lose weight.

The back of the box, which claims that the cereal can help you lose weight.

Transcript: “I love looking my best. That’s why I lead a healthy lifestyle and make Multi Grain Cheerios cereal a part of my sensible diet. People who choose more whole grain tend to weigh less than those who don’t.

With 20 grams of whole grain and 110 lightly sweetened calories, Multi Grain Cheerios is a delicious way to help me look fabulous!

More grains, less you!”

Well then. It’s pretty clear what the words on the back of the box are telling you: if you eat more whole grains, you’ll lose more weight and be thinner.

But is that true?

(Never mind the fact that the spokesperson is presumed to be a female, complete with slender silhouette. Never mind the fact that the implication is that only women need to worry about counting pounds and being thin. And never mind the fact that the implication is that the only way for a female to to look her best is to be thinner. That’s not really the point of this post.)

Well, here’s what I found in five minutes on PubMed:

The Role of Whole Grains in Body Weight Regulation is quite damning to say the least. This study took a look at the clinical trials done on whole grain and came to the conclusion that consuming whole grains on their own does not have a role in promoting weight loss. While the study acknowledges that there are chemicals involved that help to regulate appetite, it also states that it varies from grain to grain and from processing method to processing method, and that on balance, there are absolutely no effects.

This systematic review on ready to eat cereals (including the aforementioned Cheerios) came to the conclusion that the current studies are rather inconsistent in their results and recommends doctors to issue advice on weight management and encourage people to choose healthier cereals (which, inevitably, include whole grain). Note the fact that it includes additional advice on weight management, which would include watching one’s caloric intake and exercising more.

This trial checked to see whether eating whole grains will help postmenupausal women to lose weight. From the abstract, 79 women were randomized into two groups, one group eating refined wheat as part of their restricted calorie diets and the other group eating whole grains. These women were on these diets for twelve weeks. The researchers noted that while weight loss did occur in both groups, there was no difference in the amount of weight lost. The researchers also noted that there were changes in low density lipoprotein cholesterol (LDL) and body fat percentage, with the group consuming whole grain to have lower levels of each, which suggests a cardiovascular role. However, I should note that this was a study of 79 people, which to me doesn’t really seem to be a large enough sample size. Nevertheless, this study found no difference in the amount of weight loss between those consuming whole grains or refined grains.

Finally, we have this randomized control trial, which studied whether whole grain oat ready to eat cereal, as part of a dietary program for weight loss, reduces low density lipoprotein cholesterol (LDL) compared to those eating a lower fiber diet. The study had 204 participants, 144 which made it into the final analysis, and had the groups eating 500 calories less and exercising more. They noted that those who were eating whole grain oat ready to eat cereal had lower LDL levels than those who were eating a low fiber diet. However, they also noted that the amount of weight loss did not differ between groups, although they noted that those who had whole grains had a smaller weight circumference.

So what does this mean?

What it seems to say is that whether you’re eating whole grains or not doesn’t really make a difference in how much weight you lose. Studies show that there MIGHT make a difference towards your LDL cholesterol levels (which is totally a good thing!), but it won’t change the amount of weight you lose.

This makes sense. The laws of thermodynamics show that in order to stay at the same weight you are today, you have to use the same amount of calories as you eat. If you consume more calories than you use, you gain weight. If you use more calories than you consume, you lose weight. To your body, it doesn’t matter what you’re eating, but how much. You can, theoretically, lose weight on Twinkies so long as you exercise more than you consume, although I highly do not recommend this for numerous reasons, including the fact that Twinkies are high in saturated fat and low in various micronutrients (vitamins and minerals). Also, to be honest, I don’t really like the taste of Twinkies.

So why does Cheerios claim that eating whole grains will help you lose more weight?

I’m going to speculate here and say that what likely happened was that they did an observational study (or a survey) of people who ate whole grain, where they found that people who were more likely to choose whole grain were also more likely to be healthier and thinner. However, the problem with surveys is that it doesn’t account for confounding variables. For example, people who choose whole grain are also more likely to exercise more, more likely to eat more fruits and vegetables, and more likely to be aware of ways to stay healthy.

The moral of this story? Be skeptical when it comes to health claims, especially in advertising. If something sounds too good to be true, ask. Look up health claims to see whether the science supports it. And don’t forget to exercise!

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