“Eating everything in moderation” seems like a pretty healthy approach to eating: Trying new foods will open up your tastebuds to new healthy meals. Not depriving yourself of dessert will help you avoid binges. But this seemingly balanced approach may actually cause you to both gain weight and increase your risk of diabetes over 10 years, according to a study published in PLOS ONE.
Researchers asked over 7,000 people about their eating habits, including the number of different foods they eat in a week, the amount of calories in each food, and how similar the foods were to each other, nutritionally. Those who ate the widest variety of foods had a 120 percent greater increase in waist size and were more likely to gain weight than those who stuck to the few foods they knew and loved—even if those foods weren’t very healthy.
All that tasting, it turns out, may lead you to ignore hunger signals and eat more because of it. In the study, people were simply adding healthy foods on top of everything else they were eating. That means any benefits of eating produce and whole grains were overshadowed by the fat, sugar, and preservatives in foods like sausage, soft drinks, and candy, explains Dr. Marcia C. de Oliveira Otto, the lead study author. (Related: 6 science-backed diet rules you need to follow).
So does this really mean that you’ll be healthier channeling your inner preschooler and dining exclusively on mac ‘n’ cheese and chicken nuggets? Not so fast, Otto says.
Previous research has found that people open to eating “weird” health foods weighed less than their pickier counterparts, and Otto says their study agrees. What they really found was that diet quality was more important than anything else. People who ate the healthiest fare overall—even if it was just a few staple dishes—had a 25 percent lower risk of disease after 10 years.
“Eating a range of quality foods may be more effective in promoting health than the old advice of ‘eating everything in moderation,'” Otto says.
Bottom line: No one is saying you can’t have the occasional piece of cake or bar of chocolate, but research suggests it’s better to eat just a few healthy items than to “moderately” indulge in many treats. (You can still eat chocolate with our spread of healthy chocolate brownies).