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Why Eating Processed Foods Might Make You Fat

Category: Health & Fitness,Lifestyle

The researchers wanted to make sure that the processed diet did not contain only obvious junk foods. So they served many highly processed foods that a typical American might eat daily and potentially even consider nutritious, like Cheerios, blueberry muffins and orange juice for breakfast; cheese and turkey sandwiches with baked Lay’s potato chips and diet lemonade for lunch; and steak, canned corn, mashed potatoes from a packet, and a diet beverage at dinner. On the processed diet, the subjects were also offered snacks like low-fat chips, Pepperidge Farm Goldfish crackers and other packaged foods typically found in vending machines.

The researchers designed the two diets so that they contained roughly equivalent amounts of calories, carbs, fat and sugar. But the subjects were allowed to eat as much as they wanted, and they ended up consuming more calories from the meals when they were given the processed food diet.

And the sources of those macronutrients were very different. On the unprocessed diet, the subjects got their fiber, sugar and carbs from fresh produce, beans, oatmeal, sweet potatoes, grains and other whole foods. On the ultra-processed diet they ate mostly refined carbs and added sugars found in bread, bagels, juices, tater tots, sauces, chips, pasta, French fries and canned foods. The subjects were given fiber supplements on the processed diet because those foods are typically low in fiber.

The subjects spontaneously ate a lot more calories on the processed diet and, not surprisingly, gained weight. On the unprocessed diet, they consumed far fewer calories and lost weight. An analysis of their hormone levels seemed to indicate why: On the unprocessed diet, their levels of the appetite-suppressing hormone PYY increased while levels of ghrelin, a hormone that stimulates hunger, fell.

Dr. Hall and his colleagues are planning follow-up studies to examine why the ultra-processed foods had this effect. He pointed out that one thing many popular diets have in common, whether the diet is low-carb, plant-based, vegan, Paleo or high-protein, is that people who follow them often cut back on ultra-processed foods.

However, Dr. Hall cautioned against demonizing processed foods, because many Americans depend on them: Ultra-processed foods are cheap, convenient and long lasting. The unprocessed diet used in the study, for example, cost 40 percent more than the ultra-processed diet.

“We’re talking about foods that make up more than 50 percent of people’s diets, and they can be very attractive to people who have limited time, money, skills and access to ingredients that they can use to make meals from scratch,” he said. “For people who are working two jobs just to make ends meet and have a family to feed, a frozen pizza looks very good at the end of the day.”

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