- Eating highly processed foods linked to weight gain
- Processed foods lead to weight gain, but it’s about more than calories
- ‘Surprised by the findings’
- Speed might be the problem
- Are ultra-processed foods a social problem?
- Beyond Willpower: Diet Quality and Quantity Matter
- Macronutrients and Weight: Do Carbs, Protein, or Fat Matter?
- Specific Foods that Make It Easier or Harder to Control Weight
- Fruit Juice and Weight
- Diet Patterns, Portion Size, and Weight
- What Are You Putting in Your Body? The Difference between Whole and Processed Foods
- Why you should eat whole foods instead of processed foods.
- Whole Foods
- Processed Foods
- Whole foods is greater than the sum of its parts
- Two Major Studies Just Showed What a Processed Diet Can Do to Our Bodies
At a Glance
- When people ate a diet full of ultra-processed foods, they consumed more calories and gained more weight than when they ate a minimally processed diet.
- The results suggest the importance of identifying and eating healthy foods.
Ultra-processed lunch from day 5: spam sandwich with american cheese on white bread, potato chips, and diet lemonade. Hall et al., Cell Metabolism
Eating a healthy diet can help lower your risk of certain diseases and maintain a healthy weight. A healthy eating plan is made up of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and fat-free or low-fat dairy products. It also includes lean meats, poultry, fish, beans, eggs, and nuts. A healthy diet limits saturated and trans fats, sodium, and added sugars. It also emphasizes eating minimally processed foods.
Previous studies have suggested a link between diets high in “ultra-processed” foods and health problems. Ultra-processed foods have ingredients common in industrial food manufacturing, such as hydrogenated oils, high-fructose corn syrup, flavoring agents, and emulsifiers. They are often cheaper and more convenient than making a meal from whole foods. But they’re usually high in calories, salt, sugar, and fat.
Minimally processed lunch from day 5: grilled beef tender roast, barley with olive oil and garlic, steamed broccoli, side salad, and apple slices. Hall et al., Cell Metabolism
To investigate the impact of eating ultra-processed foods on weight, a team led by Dr. Kevin D. Hall at NIH’s National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK) compared body weight changes and calorie consumption for 20 healthy adults—10 men and 10 women—who ate either an ultra-processed or a minimally processed diet for two weeks.
The participants stayed at the NIH Clinical Center for 28 straight days. Each spent two weeks on both of the diets. They received three meals a day, plus snacks, made up of ultra-processed foods or minimally processed foods. For example, an ultra-processed breakfast might consist of a bagel with cream cheese and turkey bacon, while a minimally processed breakfast might be oatmeal with bananas, walnuts, and skim milk.
The ultra-processed and minimally processed meals had the same number of calories, sugars, fiber, fat, and carbohydrates. Participants could eat as much or as little as they wanted. They reported that the diets both tasted good and were satisfying. Results were published on May 16, 2019, in Cell Metabolism.
On the ultra-processed diet, people ate about 500 calories more per day than they did on the minimally processed diet. These increased calories came from carbohydrate and fat. People also ate faster on the ultra-processed diet and gained 2 pounds on average. When they were on the minimally processed diet, they lost about the same amount of weight.
While the study reinforces the benefits of unprocessed foods, the researchers note that ultra-processed foods can be difficult to restrict. “We have to be mindful that it takes more time and more money to prepare less-processed foods,” Hall says. “Just telling people to eat healthier may not be effective for some people without improved access to healthy foods.”
It’s also not clear what specific aspect of the ultra-processed foods affected people’s eating behavior and led them to gain weight. “The next step is to design similar studies with a reformulated ultra-processed diet to see if the changes can make the diet effect on calorie intake and body weight disappear,” Hall says.
Processed foods lead to weight gain, but it’s about more than calories
In the first study of its kind, scientists have shown that eating ultra-processed foods leads to weight gain in human volunteers in as little as 2 weeks.
Share on PinterestVolunteers put on weight after 2 weeks on an ultra-processed food diet.
There are plenty of studies in mice linking processed foods to problems such as obesity and intestinal inflammation.
But mice are not people, as critics of such studies are quick to point out.
In humans, researchers have reported associations between processed foods and health outcomes, such as an increased risk of developing obesity, cancer, autoimmune conditions, and even death.
Yet, ultra-processed foods make up a staggering 57.9% of energy intake in the United States.
According to the NOVA food classification system, ultra-processed foods include soft drinks, packaged snacks, meat nuggets, frozen meals, and foods high in additives and low in unprocessed ingredients.
“Previous studies have found correlations between ultra-processed food consumption and obesity,” Kevin D. Hall, from the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases in Bethesda, MD, which is part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), explained to Medical News Today.
Hall and his colleagues now present the results of a controlled clinical trial, comparing the effects of unprocessed versus ultra-processed foods on humans in the journal Cell Metabolism.
‘Surprised by the findings’
The research team recruited 10 male and 10 female volunteers who stayed at the NIH Clinical Center for 28 days.
Half of the participants ate ultra-processed food for the first 2 weeks while the others received unprocessed foods. After the 2-week period, the groups switched, allowing each participant to eat both the ultra-processed food and the unprocessed food for 2 weeks.
The volunteers ate three meals per day, and the researchers asked them to eat as much or as little as they wanted. They also had access to snacks and bottled water all day.
“We hypothesized that ultra-processed foods might lead to increased calorie intake because they are often high in sugar, fat, and salt while being low in fiber,” Hall told MNT. “Therefore, when we matched the ultra-processed and unprocessed diets for these nutrients, we expected the ultra-processed diet to result in similar calorie intake and little differences in body weight.”
When the volunteers were on the ultra-processed diet, however, they ate an average of 508 calories more each day than when they were on the unprocessed diet. As a result, they put on an average of 2 pounds (0.9 kilograms) during this time, mostly in the form of body fat.
“I was surprised by the findings from this study because I thought that if we matched the two diets for components like sugars, fat, carbohydrates, protein, and sodium, there wouldn’t be anything magical about the ultra-processed food that would cause people to eat more.”
Kevin D. Hall
Participants in the unprocessed food group lost an average of 0.9 kg during the 2 week study period. This group also saw increases in the gut hormone peptide YY, which suppresses hunger, and decreases in the hunger hormone ghrelin.
Speed might be the problem
There are several reasons that Hall and his colleagues think may have led the volunteers in the ultra-processed study group to put on weight.
Although the study participants rated the pleasantness and familiarity of the diets as equal, they ate significantly faster in the ultra-processed group.
In fact, they consumed an extra 17 calories, or 7.4 grams of food per minute, than their counterparts in the unprocessed food group.
“There may be something about the textural or sensory properties of the food that made them eat more quickly,” Hall comments. “If you’re eating very quickly, perhaps you’re not giving your gastrointestinal tract enough time to signal to your brain that you’re full. When this happens, you might easily overeat.”
Despite a close match in the macronutrient composition of both diets, the unprocessed diet contained slightly more protein. “It could be that people ate more because they were trying to reach certain protein targets,” Hall comments.
Yet the team found that the ultra-processed food group actually consumed more carbohydrates and fat than the unprocessed food group, but not protein.
Finally, the meals in the ultra-processed group had a higher energy density than in the unprocessed group, which Hall proposes “likely contributed to the observed excess energy intake.”
The authors identify several limitations in their study, which include that “the inpatient environment of the metabolic ward makes it difficult to generalize our results to free-living conditions.”
They also acknowledge that they did not take into consideration how cost, convenience, and skill influence consumers to choose ultra-processed over unprocessed foods.
“Ultra-processed foods contribute to more than half the calories consumed in the USA, and they are cheap and convenient options,” Hall commented to MNT.
“So, I think it may be difficult to substantially reduce consumption of ultra-processed foods,” he continued, “especially for people in lower socioeconomic brackets who may not have the time, skill, equipment, or resources to purchase and safely store unprocessed food ingredients and then plan and safely prepare tasty, unprocessed meals.”
In the paper, Hall concludes, “However, policies that discourage consumption of ultra-processed foods should be sensitive to the time, skill, expense, and effort required to prepare meals from minimally processed foods — resources that are often in short supply for those who are not members of the upper socioeconomic classes.”
He is not the first to suggest a connection between socioeconomics and food choices.
A recent, large-scale study in the journal Nature, suggests that in high-income countries, such as the U.S., rural populations are putting on weight faster than their city counterparts.
The authors in that study comment that this may, in part, be due to “economic and social disadvantage, including lower education and income, lower availability, and higher price of health and fresh foods.”
Beyond Willpower: Diet Quality and Quantity Matter
It’s no secret that the amount of calories people eat and drink has a direct impact on their weight: Consume the same number of calories that the body burns over time, and weight stays stable. Consume more than the body burns, weight goes up. Less, weight goes down. But what about the type of calories: Does it matter whether they come from specific nutrients-fat, protein, or carbohydrate? Specific foods-whole grains or potato chips? Specific diets-the Mediterranean diet or the “Twinkie” diet? And what about when or where people consume their calories: Does eating breakfast make it easier to control weight? Does eating at fast-food restaurants make it harder?
There’s ample research on foods and diet patterns that protect against heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and other chronic conditions. The good news is that many of the foods that help prevent disease also seem to help with weight control-foods like whole grains, vegetables, fruits, and nuts. And many of the foods that increase disease risk-chief among them, refined grains and sugary drinks-are also factors in weight gain.Conventional wisdom says that since a calorie is a calorie, regardless of its source, the best advice for weight control is simply to eat less and exercise more. Yet emerging research suggests that some foods and eating patterns may make it easier to keep calories in check, while others may make people more likely to overeat.
This article briefly reviews the research on dietary intake and weight control, highlighting diet strategies that also help prevent chronic disease.
Macronutrients and Weight: Do Carbs, Protein, or Fat Matter?
When people eat controlled diets in laboratory studies, the percentage of calories from fat, protein, and carbohydrate do not seem to matter for weight loss. In studies where people can freely choose what they eat, there may be some benefits to a higher protein, lower carbohydrate approach. For chronic disease prevention, though, the quality and food sources of these nutrients matters more than their relative quantity in the diet. And the latest research suggests that the same diet quality message applies for weight control.
Dietary Fat and Weight
Low-fat diets have long been touted as the key to a healthy weight and to good health. But the evidence just isn’t there: Over the past 30 years in the U.S., the percentage of calories from fat in people’s diets has gone down, but obesity rates have skyrocketed. (1,2) Carefully conducted clinical trials have found that following a low-fat diet does not make it any easier to lose weight than following a moderate- or high-fat diet. In fact, study volunteers who follow moderate- or high-fat diets lose just as much weight, and in some studies a bit more, as those who follow low-fat diets. (3,4) And when it comes to disease prevention, low-fat diets don’t appear to offer any special benefits. (5)
Part of the problem with low-fat diets is that they are often high in carbohydrate, especially from rapidly digested sources, such as white bread and white rice. And diets high in such foods increase the risk of weight gain, diabetes, and heart disease. (See Carbohydrates and Weight, below.)
For good health, the type of fat people eat is far more important that the amount (see box), and there’s some evidence that the same may be true for weight control. (6–9) In the Nurses’ Health Study, for example, which followed 42,000 middle-age and older women for eight years, increased consumption of unhealthy fats-trans fats, especially, but also saturated fats-was linked to weight gain, but increased consumption of healthy fats-monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fat-was not. (6)
Protein and Weight
Read more about healthy proteins on The Nutrition Source
Higher protein diets seem to have some advantages for weight loss, though more so in short-term trials; in longer term studies, high-protein diets seem to perform equally well as other types of diets. (3,4) High-protein diets tend to be low in carbohydrate and high in fat, so it is difficult to tease apart the benefits of eating lots of protein from those of eating more fat or less carbohydrate. But there are a few reasons why eating a higher percentage of calories from protein may help with weight control:
- More satiety: People tend to feel fuller, on fewer calories, after eating protein than they do after eating carbohydrate or fat. (10)
- Greater thermic effect: It takes more energy to metabolize and store protein than other macronutrients, and this may help people increase the energy they burn each day. (10,11)
- Improved body composition: Protein seems to help people hang on to lean muscle during weight loss, and this, too, can help boost the energy-burned side of the energy balance equation. (11)
Higher protein, lower carbohydrate diets improve blood lipid profiles and other metabolic markers, so they may help prevent heart disease and diabetes. (4,12,13) But some high-protein foods are healthier than others: High intakes of red meat and processed meat are associated with an increased risk of heart disease, diabetes, and colon cancer. (14–16)
Replacing red and processed meat with nuts, beans, fish, or poultry seems to lower the risk of heart disease and diabetes. (14,16) And this diet strategy may help with weight control, too, according to a recent study from the Harvard School of Public Health. Researchers tracked the diet and lifestyle habits of 120,000 men and women for up to 20 years, looking at how small changes contributed to weight gain over time. (9) People who ate more red and processed meat over the course of the study gained more weight-about a pound extra every four years. People who ate more nuts over the course of the study gained less weight-about a half pound less every four years.
Carbohydrates and Weight
Lower carbohydrate, higher protein diets may have some weight loss advantages in the short term. (3,4) Yet when it comes to preventing weight gain and chronic disease, carbohydrate quality is much more important than carbohydrate quantity.
Read more about carbohydrates on The Nutrition Source
Milled, refined grains and the foods made with them-white rice, white bread, white pasta, processed breakfast cereals, and the like-are rich in rapidly digested carbohydrate. So are potatoes and sugary drinks. The scientific term for this is that they have a high glycemic index and glycemic load. Such foods cause fast and furious increases in blood sugar and insulin that, in the short term, can cause hunger to spike and can lead to overeating-and over the long term, increase the risk of weight gain, diabetes, and heart disease. (17–19)
For example, in the diet and lifestyle change study, people who increased their consumption of French fries, potatoes and potato chips, sugary drinks, and refined grains gained more weight over time-an extra 3.4, 1.3, 1.0, and 0.6 pounds every four years, respectively. (9) People who decreased their intake of these foods gained less weight.
Specific Foods that Make It Easier or Harder to Control Weight
There’s growing evidence that specific food choices may help with weight control. The good news is that many of the foods that are beneficial for weight control also help prevent heart disease, diabetes, and other chronic diseases. Conversely, foods and drinks that contribute to weight gain—chief among them, refined grains and sugary drinks—also contribute to chronic disease.
Whole Grains, Fruits and Vegetables, and Weight
Read more about whole grains on The Nutrition Source
Whole grains-whole wheat, brown rice, barley, and the like, especially in their less-processed forms-are digested more slowly than refined grains. So they have a gentler effect on blood sugar and insulin, which may help keep hunger at bay. The same is true for most vegetables and fruits. These “slow carb” foods have bountiful benefits for disease prevention, and there’s also evidence that they can help prevent weight gain.
Read more about vegetables and fruits on The Nutrition Source
The weight control evidence is stronger for whole grains than it is for fruits and vegetables. (20–22) The most recent support comes from the Harvard School of Public Health diet and lifestyle change study: People who increased their intake of whole grains, whole fruits (not fruit juice), and vegetables over the course of the 20-year study gained less weight-0.4, 0.5, and 0.2 pounds less every four years, respectively. (9)
Of course, the calories from whole grains, whole fruits, and vegetables don’t disappear. What’s likely happening is that when people increase their intake of these foods, they cut back on calories from other foods. Fiber may be responsible for these foods’ weight control benefits, since fiber slows digestion, helping to curb hunger. Fruits and vegetables are also high in water, which may help people feel fuller on fewer calories.
Nuts and Weight
Read more about nuts on The Nutrition Source
Nuts pack a lot of calories into a small package and are high in fat, so they were once considered taboo for dieters. As it turns out, studies find that eating nuts does not lead to weight gain and may instead help with weight control, perhaps because nuts are rich in protein and fiber, both of which may help people feel fuller and less hungry. (9,23–25) People who regularly eat nuts are less likely to have heart attacks or die from heart disease than those who rarely eat them, which is another reason to include nuts in a healthy diet. (19)
Dairy and Weight
Read more about calcium and milk on The Nutrition Source
The U.S. dairy industry has aggressively promoted the weight-loss benefits of milk and other dairy products, based largely on findings from short-term studies it has funded. (26,27) But a recent review of nearly 50 randomized trials finds little evidence that high dairy or calcium intakes help with weight loss. (28) Similarly, most long-term follow-up studies have not found that dairy or calcium protect against weight gain, (29–32) and one study in adolescents found high milk intakes to be associated with increased body mass index. (33)
One exception is the recent dietary and lifestyle change study from the Harvard School of Public Health, which found that people who increased their yogurt intake gained less weight; increases in milk and cheese intake, however, did not appear to promote weight loss or gain. (9) It’s possible that the beneficial bacteria in yogurt may influence weight control, but more research is needed.
Sugar-Sweetened Beverages and Weight
Read more about healthy drinks on The Nutrition Source
There’s convincing evidence that sugary drinks increase the risk of weight gain, obesity, and diabetes: (34–36) A systematic review and meta-analysis of 88 studies found “clear associations of soft drink intake with increased caloric intake and body weight.” (34) In children and adolescents, a more recent meta analysis estimates that for every additional 12-ounce serving of sugary beverage consumed each day, body mass index increases by 0.08 units. (35) Another meta analysis finds that adults who regularly drink sugared beverages have a 26 percent higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes than people who rarely drink sugared beverages. (36) Emerging evidence also suggests that high sugary beverage intake increases the risk of heart disease. (37)
Like refined grains and potatoes, sugary beverages are high in rapidly-digested carbohydrate. (See Carbohydrates and Weight, above.) Research suggests that when that carbohydrate is delivered in liquid form, rather than solid form, it is not as satiating, and people don’t eat less to compensate for the extra calories. (38)
These findings on sugary drinks are alarming, given that children and adults are drinking ever-larger quantities of them: In the U.S., sugared beverages made up about 4 percent of daily calorie intake in the 1970s, but by 2001, represented about 9 percent of calories. (36) The most recent data find that on any given day, half of Americans consume some type of sugared beverage, 25 percent consume at least 200 calories from sugared drinks, and 5 percent of consume at least 567 calories-the equivalent of four cans of sugary soda. (39)
The good news is that studies in children and adults have also shown that cutting back on sugary drinks can lead to weight loss. (40,41) Sugary drinks have become an important target for obesity prevention efforts, prompting discussions of policy initiatives such as taxing soda. (42)
Fruit Juice and Weight
Read more on The Nutrition Source about the amount of sugar in soda, fruit juice, sports drinks, and energy drinks, and download the How Sweet Is It? guide to healthier beverages
It’s important to note that fruit juices are not a better option for weight control than sugar-sweetened beverages. Ounce for ounce, fruit juices-even those that are 100 percent fruit juice, with no added sugar- are as high in sugar and calories as sugary sodas. So it’s no surprise that a recent Harvard School of Public Health study, which tracked the diet and lifestyle habits of 120,000 men and women for up to 20 years, found that people who increased their intake of fruit juice gained more weight over time than people who did not. (9) Pediatricians and public health advocates recommend that children and adults limit fruit juice to just a small glass a day, if they consume it at all.
Alcohol and Weight
Read more about alcohol on The Nutrition Source
Even though most alcoholic beverages have more calories per ounce than sugar-sweetened beverages, there’s no clear-cut evidence that moderate drinking contributes to weight gain. While the recent diet and lifestyle change study found that people who increased their alcohol intake gained more weight over time, the findings varied by type of alcohol. (9) In most previous prospective studies, there was no difference in weight gain over time between light-to-moderate drinkers and nondrinkers, or the light-to-moderate drinkers gained less weight than nondrinkers. (43–47)
Diet Patterns, Portion Size, and Weight
People don’t eat nutrients or foods in isolation. They eat meals that fall into an overall eating pattern, and researchers have begun exploring whether particular diet or meal patterns help with weight control or contribute to weight gain. Portion sizes have also increased dramatically over the past three decades, as has consumption of fast food-U.S. children, for example, consume a greater percentage of calories from fast food than they do from school food (48)-and these trends are also thought to be contributors to the obesity epidemic.
Dietary Patterns and Weight
So-called “prudent” dietary patterns-diets that feature whole grains, vegetables, and fruits-seem to protect against weight gain, whereas “Western-style” dietary patterns-with more red meat or processed meat, sugared drinks, sweets, refined carbohydrates, or potatoes-have been linked to obesity. (49–52) The Western-style dietary pattern is also linked to increased risk of heart disease, diabetes, and other chronic conditions.
Following a Mediterranean-style diet, well-documented to protect against chronic disease, (53) appears to be promising for weight control, too. The traditional Mediterranean-style diet is higher in fat (about 40 percent of calories) than the typical American diet (34 percent of calories (54)), but most of the fat comes from olive oil and other plant sources. The diet is also rich in fruits, vegetables, nuts, beans, and fish. A 2008 systematic review found that in most (but not all) studies, people who followed a Mediterranean-style diet had lower rates of obesity or more weight loss. (55) There is no single “Mediterranean” diet, however, and studies often use different definitions, so more research is needed.
Breakfast, Meal Frequency, Snacking, and Weight
There is some evidence that skipping breakfast increases the risk of weight gain and obesity, though the evidence is stronger in children, especially teens, than it is in adults. (56) Meal frequency and snacking have increased over the past 30 years in the U.S. (57)-on average, children get 27 percent of their daily calories from snacks, primarily from desserts and sugary drinks, and increasingly from salty snacks and candy. But there have been conflicting findings on the relationship between meal frequency, snacking, and weight control, and more research is needed. (56)
Portion Sizes and Weight
Since the 1970s, portion sizes have increased both for food eaten at home and for food eaten away from home, in adults and children. (58,59) Short-term studies clearly demonstrate that when people are served larger portions, they eat more. One study, for example, gave moviegoers containers of stale popcorn in either large or medium-sized buckets; people reported that they did not like the taste of the popcorn-and even so, those who received large containers ate about 30 percent more popcorn than those who received medium-sized containers. (60) Another study showed that people given larger beverages tended to drink significantly more, but did not decrease their subsequent food consumption . (67) An additional study provided evidence that when provided with larger portion sizes, people tended to eat more, with no decrease in later food intake. (68) There is an intuitive appeal to the idea that portion sizes increase obesity, but long-term prospective studies would help to strengthen this hypothesis.
Fast Food and Weight
Fast food is known for its large portions, low prices, high palatability, and high sugar content, and there’s evidence from studies in teens and adults that frequent fast-food consumption contributes to overeating and weight gain. (61–66) The CARDIA study, for example, followed 3,000 young adults for 13 years. People who had higher fast-food-intake levels at the start of the study weighed an average of about 13 pounds more than people who had the lowest fast-food-intake levels. They also had larger waist circumferences and greater increases in triglycercides, and double the odds of developing metabolic syndrome. (62) More research is needed to tease apart the effect of eating fast food itself from the effect of the neighborhood people live in, or other individual traits that may make people more likely to eat fast food.
The Bottom Line: Healthy Diet Can Prevent Weight Gain and Chronic Disease
Weight gain in adulthood is often gradual, about a pound a year (9)-too slow of a gain for most people to notice, but one that can add up, over time, to a weighty personal and public health problem. There’s increasing evidence that the same healthful food choices and diet patterns that help prevent heart disease, diabetes, and other chronic conditions may also help to prevent weight gain:
- Choose minimally processed, whole foods-whole grains, vegetables, fruits, nuts, healthful sources of protein (fish, poultry, beans), and plant oils.
- Limit sugared beverages, refined grains, potatoes, red and processed meats, and other highly processed foods, such as fast food.
Though the contribution of any one diet change to weight control may be small, together, the changes could add up to a considerable effect, over time and across the whole society. (9) Since people’s food choices are shaped by their surroundings, it’s imperative for governments to promote policy and environmental changes that make healthy foods more accessible and decrease the availability and marketing of unhealthful foods.
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What Are You Putting in Your Body? The Difference between Whole and Processed Foods
By Nicole Martinez, Clinical Nutritionist Educator
The phrase “you are what you eat” was coined in the early 1800s by a French lawyer, but didn’t become popular in the United States until the 1920s after a doctor strongly believed that food influenced health. The philosophy re-emerged in the 1960s during the organic-food movement as more and more evidence supported the idea.
Today, many people live by this philosophy for the simple, or not so simple, choices we make every day about what to eat and put in our bodies.
What makes whole foods “whole” and processed foods “processed”?
Whole foods are generally characterized as foods that have not been processed, refined or had ingredients added to them. Whole foods include fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds, whole grains, meat, fish and eggs. Think of food that you look at and recognize as something that exists in nature, like broccoli, a fish or a potato. In addition to a whole-foods diet, some people may eat a whole-foods, plant based diet, which simply excludes animal foods, like meat, fish, dairy and eggs.
Processed foods have undergone a change of character. Foods are processed for many reasons including to extend shelf life, make them more convenient, alter their nutritional composition and make them taste, look or smell different. Determining what is processed can get tricky – it’s helpful to think of processed foods on a scale ranging from minimally processed to heavily processed. Prewashed or precut fruits or vegetables have been minimally processed, whereas turning a beet into a beet chip requires more processing – people may not know that the final chip actually came from a beet.
Health impacts – nutrient dense vs. empty calories
The vitamins and minerals abundant in whole foods are the necessary raw materials that our bodies depend on daily. We also get the benefits of fiber and phytonutrients, which protect against chronic diseases like cancer and cardiovascular disease. Whole foods are considered “nutrient dense,” meaning they contain a variety of nutrients, while foods that are heavily processed are considered to contain “empty calories.”
Eating a diet mainly composed of heavily processed foods, or empty calories, supplies us with excessive calories, sugar, fat and sodium, and tends to be low in fiber and phytonutrients. These can negatively impact our bodies and play a role in the development of obesity, diabetes, hypertension, hyperlipidemia and certain types of cancer.
Should you avoid processed foods?
Completely avoiding processed foods for health reasons isn’t typically necessary – incorporating some minimally processed foods can actually help individuals eat healthier overall.
Some people also think about the environmental impact when choosing food – what is good for us tends to be easier on our planet. Eating more whole and less-processed foods can help reduce your carbon footprint and conserve natural resources. The most environmentally friendly choice would be to adopt a whole-foods, plant-based diet, but even small changes can have a big impact.
Look at the ingredients
The best way to get an idea of the amount of processing a food has undergone is by looking at the ingredient list. A list with one or two ingredients may indicate a less-processed food, and a longer ingredient list typically means more processing. If you are still unsure after reading the ingredient list, the Environmental Working Group scores foods based on nutrition, ingredients and processing concerns.
Learn more about the Environmental Working Group and the processing of foods at ewg.org/foodscores.
Nicole Martinez is a Clinical Nutritionist Educator at Mission Weight Management.
Learn more about Mission Weight Management program and services at missionweight.org or call 828-213-4100.
Why you should eat whole foods instead of processed foods.
Some of you will know already that Andy is also a director at the Porsche Human Performance Center at Silverstone, U.K. (Where does he find the time?!). The guys at PHP offer our Advanced Sweat Test up there, as well as loads of other fantastic performance improvement services like heat chamber training. We asked PHP Sports Scientist Jack Wilson to write a series of blogs on the seven fundamental ‘habits’ they encourage their clients to form in order to maximise their performance. The first post is about how to get your nutrition strategy right by avoiding too many processed foods. Over to you Jacky boy…
Thanks Dave. (Jacky boy, really?!). At Porsche Human Performance, the blueprint for the nutritional guidance we provide our athletes centres around seven fundamental ‘habits’. Much like hydration, a crucial fact that too often goes unacknowledged in mainstream nutrition is that there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach. A nutrition strategy that works for one person is by no means guaranteed to work for the next. It’s for that reason that our seven habits, whilst being encouraged to everyone, allow a degree of flexibly so that they can be applied to each individual’s needs, goals and preferences.
Our first habit is possibly our most important. It encapsulates our main nutrition ethos and over-arches the other six habits that follow:
‘Eat whole foods instead of processed foods whenever possible’.
Sounds simple enough and terms like ‘whole foods’ are becoming increasingly recognised amongst folks with even the slightest interest in nutrition. But what is a whole food exactly and what is it about them that makes them so superior? After all, strictly speaking even the most unprocessed looking foods have been subjected to ‘processing’ in some way (milk is pasteurised, tuna is tinned etc.).
For us, processed foods are defined as foods that have been somewhat removed from their natural state as a result of chemical, biological and/or mechanical manipulation. Whole foods on the other hand are largely unaltered and appear pretty much as they would do in nature.
Image: Stocksnap (copyright free)
So why process foods?
Generally speaking, foods are typically processed in order to:
- Increase shelf life.
- ‘Improve’ taste.
- Make them more consistent in shape.
- Make them look more appealing.
- Increase or decrease certain nutritional values (e.g. low fat).
- Make them easier to package, transport and store.
- Make them quicker to prepare and eat.
The above results are great news for food manufacturers but rarely are they great news for us. The act of food processing often diminishes the nutritional value of a food and increases the likelihood of us wanting to consume more and more.
For years, food and drink companies have been hard at it in laboratories; extensively researching the precise balance of ingredients that pin point reward centres in our brains, amplifying the voice at the back of our heads that encourages us to keep eating. At times, companies have even shamelessly shouted about it – anyone recall a well-known crisp company with the slogan ‘once you pop, you just can’t stop’?
Are you an addict?!
Often cited in this regard is the seemingly irresistible combination of sugar, salt and fat. Many experts have branded foods with this tantalising-triad as ‘hyper-palatable’ and numerous studies have investigated whether these foods should actually be classed as addictive in the exact same way as many recognised drugs (See notes 1-3).
Interestingly, in whole foods, this combination seldom exists; foods tend to be naturally higher in sugar (e.g. fruit) or fat (e.g. nuts), but not both. One issue, therefore, is that highly processed foods with their finely-engineered ingredient composition have a greater potential for overconsumption. The problem is further compounded when this overconsumption comes at a cost to our intake of quality whole foods. And this isn’t the only issue…
Calories v nutrients
The concept of ‘nutrient density’ is worth exploring. Nutrient density can be evaluated by stacking up the nutrient content of a food or drink against the number of calories it contains. Generally speaking, compared to their whole food counterparts, most processed foods fall way short when it comes to nutrient density. They tend to be calorie dense and nutrient sparse; a trait common to the overall Western diet nowadays in a broader sense.
Though lacking in nutrients, many processed foods often serve up an oversized platter of unwanted additives. Certain artificial preservatives, flavourings and colourings used in processed foods have been linked with adverse side effects ranging from headaches to cancers. Whilst not always the case, these are usually identifiable as unrecognisable, hard-to-pronounce items on a product’s ingredients list.
What’s more, even foods proudly labelled as having ‘no artificial ingredients’ might not be as innocent as their packaging suggests (PH’s new ‘all-natural’ range is all good on that front though, with just 8 natural ingredients I believe!). Refined oils, flours, starches and sugars can all be classed as natural, but when added to foods and drink they can be detrimental to our health.
Admittedly, it would be wrong to tarnish all food additives with the same brush since not all have been scientifically condemned as nutritional assassins and some might actually provide genuine benefit (e.g. a common preservative, L-ascorbic acid, is actually a form of vitamin C). However, as a general rule of thumb, the more artificial, unrecognisable ingredients listed in a given food or drink, the more we would advise seeking a whole food alternative instead. But more on ingredients in a minute.
In sum then, for us at PHP, many of the issues surrounding processed foods relate to their comparative lack of nutrient value, potential for overconsumption in place of more nutritious options and presence of potentially harmful added ingredients.
It’s hopefully becoming clearer why whole foods provide a superior option when looking for the major constituents of our diet. They are much more nutrient dense, contain an abundance of vitamins, minerals, fibre, antioxidants and phytochemicals, lack artificial ingredients and are simply in a physical form that we as human beings are designed to consume and thrive on.
How to sort a whole food from a processed food.
Rather than imagining two distinct categories when trying to distinguish between whole and processed foods, it’s more appropriate to view foods and drinks on a continuum like the one below*. Without wanting to confuse things, it’s important to acknowledge that this continuum isn’t necessarily synonymous with a healthy-unhealthy continuum (e.g. natural dairy products aren’t necessarily less healthy than foods nearer the whole foods end).
*N.B. the above is not based on any objective classification but gives a rough idea of where certain foods & drinks sit on the whole foods-processed foods spectrum.
In keeping with Habit #1, most of your nutrition should come from foods which sit towards the whole foods end of the spectrum. As we move towards the more processed end, whenever possible, these foods are best substituted for whole food alternatives. This approach is arguably the most effective way to enhance the overall quality of our diet and optimising our health, body composition and performance through nutrition.
If you find yourself unsure as to where a particular food or drink sits on this continuum, we always advise people to read the ingredients list. The fact that it’s got an ingredients list to start with can be the first warning sign! Generally speaking, the longer the ingredients list and the more items you cannot understand or pronounce, the further towards the processed end that food likely sits and the more likely it is that you’d be better off choosing a whole-food alternative.
One convenient whole food source we’ve found for when you’re on the go is Perkier Bars. They’re full of slow-release energy, are plant-based and they’re abundant with nutrients your body needs. They’re made with quinoa and sprouted grains combined and make a tasty, natural source of fibre, protein and omega 3, as well as being rich in antioxidants to boost your wellbeing and provide you with nutritious energy. Sadly, they’re not available online, but we found them in Sainsburys.
A soup-er example.
Navigating ingredients lists is a whole other blog post (stay tuned) but to give you an idea, below are the ingredients of three different vegetable soups readily available at most supermarkets…
On the face of it all three have been processed to some extent to turn their ingredients into soup form. However, Soup A contains the fewest ingredients, all of which are recognisable and most of which would sit at the whole foods end of the continuum individually. Soup C by contrast contains a much longer ingredients list, much of which would be difficult for most people to pronounce let alone explain.
Soup B has fewer artificial-sounding ingredients but some added sugar and flavourings. Accordingly, Soup A would fall towards the whole foods end of the continuum, Soup C would fall towards the processed end and is probably best avoided, and Soup B sits somewhere in the middle – not the worst choice but better left on the shelf in favour of Soup A, which represents a decent nutritional option.
We don’t promote any particular “diet”. We simply encourage everyone to consume real, whole, clean, unprocessed foods, rich in nutrients and high in fiber. You can’t go wrong avoiding food additives and ultra-processing.
We suggest shopping at farmers’ markets or focusing on the perimeter aisles of the grocery store (produce, meat, dairy, etc.) and to be scrupulous when purchasing foods with a label (most real foods usually do not have a label).
HERE ARE SOME RESOURCES FOR LOCATING REAL FOODS NEAR YOU:
1. A great online resource for finding sources of real food in your community is the USDA Local Food Directories – a gateway to locate local food retail and wholesale market outlets. You can search for markets and operations according to zip code, product availability, payment method and even whether the market participates in Federal nutrition programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Farmers Market, CSA, Food Hub and On-farm Market Directories are now available for public viewing.
2. CAFF (Community Alliance with Family Farmers) is an organization that promotes “family-scale agriculture that cares for the land, sustains local economies and promotes social justice.” CAFF compiles guides for eating locally in various regions of California. Here is The Eater’s Guide to Local Food: 4th Edition featuring the San Francisco Bay Area.
3. Eat Well Guide is a search engine for finding sustainable (and local) foods.
4. PCFMA (Pacific Coast Farmer’s Market Association) is a nonprofit in the San Francisco Bay Area that operates and promotes farmer’s markets; a major resource for Northern Californians.
5. FarmRaiser is an “alternative to traditional fundraisers that have been lost in a sea of sugar and junk food. It is a powerful and innovative way to raise money for your project while helping to build a stronger, healthier community. We use technology and old fashioned organizing to create product-based fundraisers that allow students to sell healthy products from local businesses.”
6. REAL certified is a certification program that promotes sustainable and healthful food and beverages.
7. Edible Startups is a “blog dedicated to sharing innovative ideas and ventures in the food industry.”
8. The Food Evolution is an organization that teaches people how to prepare delicious and nutritious meals.
9. Collective School Garden Network is a foundation that plants gardens in schools all around Arizona and California.
10. FamilyFarmed is a “non-profit organization committed to expanding the production, marketing and distribution of locally grown and responsibly produced food, in order to enhance the social, economic, and environmental health of our communities.” They host the annual Good Food Festival & Conference.
11. Local Food Lab is “a startup academy and online community for food entrepreneurs.”
12. CUESA offers farm tours, cooking demonstrations, seasonal tastings and other events to help the public learn more about their food.
13. American Kale Association is a website that informs the public about kale and all of its health benefits.
14. Meals To Heal is an organization “dedicated to making the lives of cancer patients and their caregivers easier and less stressful by providing services which relieve them of the significant time, energy and worry associated with ensuring proper nutrition for themselves and their loved ones.”
15. From the Garden to the Table applies a “full-circle” approach to problems involving poor nutrition and food environments by involving students, parents, teachers, schools, and communities in creating better health and more supportive and greener environments.
16. Real Food Cup was founded by Kristin Zellhart, certified nutrition educator because she saw a gap in the “convenience” food market. With her nutrition background, love for real food and drive for changing the food landscape she decided to start a local food company to change how we consume meals “on the go”. She believes we must move from processed food back to real food.
17. Amp Your Good reimagines a way to run food drives – a unique blend of crowdfeeding, social networking, gamification and curation all designed to help people and organizations raise food instead of funds.
18. Farmers’ Market Finder – California. Just enter your address and find the markets nearest you that accept CalFresh EBT, WIC and offer Market Match* incentives.
19. Eating Real Food just got easier. Check out www.eatreal.org. More than 50% of U.S. consumers now eat out every day. Why not eat an establishment that cares about human health, the environment, and animal welfare?
In the food industry right now there are a lot of words being thrown around like GMO, organic, natural, fresh or local. But do all of these words really mean better for you? I recently saw a green Diet Coke can and above it the word “organic” in italicized cursive letters. Is this supposed to mean it is better for you than regular Diet Coke? Does it mean that the ingredients in it are less likely to be processed and possibly affect your health? Probably not.
The proof lies in the pudding when it comes to foods that are good for your health. As a Registered Dietitian, I encourage my patients to focus on “whole foods” that are nutrient dense rather than “processed foods” that are energy dense. What is the difference between the two? Well, nutrient dense foods provide nutrients for your body such as fiber, vitamins and minerals with low added sugar and fat, while energy dense foods, or high calorie foods, provide many calories with little value to your body.
A whole food would be considered, ideally, as a food with only one ingredient i.e. corn on the cob, apple, chicken or a cucumber. These foods will assist you in reducing your cholesterol, regulating your blood sugars and reducing risk for diabetes while also assisting you in maintaining your weight. A processed food is any food with more than one ingredient, and food companies typically add additional sugars, preservatives, dyes and “bad” fats such as saturated and trans fats. A perfect example would be a baked potato (one ingredient) compared to instant mashed potatoes. The ingredients list on the Hungry Jack instant mashed potatoes include: POTATO FLAKES (SODIUM BISULFITE, BHA AND CITRIC ACID ADDED TO PROTECT COLOR AND FLAVOR), CONTAINS 2% OR LESS OF: MONOGLYCERIDES, PARTIALLY HYDROGENATED COTTONSEED OIL, NATURAL FLAVOR, SODIUM ACID PYROPHOSPHATE, BUTTEROIL. (Note: hydrogenated oil is trans fat, which is directly linked to heart disease and plaque build up.) It makes you wonder, with all of these added ingredients and chemicals and altering of oils, is this a real food?
Here’s how to incorporate whole foods into your daily routine:
• Buy seasonal food directly from a local farmer at a farmer’s market or through a CSA
• Shop around the perimeter of the grocery store — that’s where all the whole foods are! Avoid the aisles as that is where the processed foods are located. Make a grocery list that takes you around the outside of the store — fruits and vegetables, low-fat meat and low-fat dairy — and includes just 1-2 aisles per trip.
See below for foods to look for at the grocery store, and foods to avoid:
Fruits and Vegetables
Whole foods: fresh fruits, fresh vegetables, frozen vegetables, frozen fruits, unsalted nuts
Processed foods to avoid: fruit or vegetable juices, fruits canned in heavy syrup, fruit snacks/fruit roll ups, veggie or potato chips, salted/seasoned nuts
Whole foods: fresh lean meats, fresh fish/shellfish, eggs
Processed foods to avoid: bacon, sausage, chicken fingers, fish sticks, hot dogs, deli meats, potted meats and spam
Whole foods: low-fat milk (skim or 1%), plain yogurt, low-fat cheese and cottage cheese
Processed foods to avoid: ice cream bars, processed cheese such as Velveeta, sweetened yogurt/parfaits
• Fill half your plate with fruits and vegetables! Check out choosemyplate.gov for recipe ideas and tips for healthy eating.
• Last but not least, garden! Try growing your own fruits, vegetables and herbs at home. Check out your local cooperative extension for landscape, garden and indoor plant information and find a Master Gardener in your area.
Happy gardening to my fellow gardeners out there and wishes for a healthy summer!
Photo credit: Vanessa Clark, RD, LD
Brittany L. Chin Jones, MS, RD, LD, is the owner of Blush Nutrition, LLC and the Continuing Education Chair for the South Carolina Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (SCAND). Over the years she has served as the Piedmont Dietetic Association president, SCAND PR-Media Chair, and the Communications Chair for the Thirty and Under in Nutrition Dietetics member interest group. Follow her at BrittanyJonesRD.com and on Twitter and Instagram.The term ‘food’ has changed dramatically in the last 100 years! Since the dawn of time people have survived eating what we call today organic, whole foods. Sadly, organic whole foods are considered a luxury and almost a specialty item in this day and age, indicating just how far away from nature we’ve come. As food was taken from the hands of the farmers to processing plants, we began a new era of food products, which our ancestors would not recognize.
The hidden ingredients that make food more appealing to our tastebuds are added to a large percentage of all heavily processed foods. The 3 main ingredients, fat, sugar, and salt, are known to excite our taste buds and make us want more. They perpetuate an addictive cycle many people struggle with. Neuroscientists link overeating to food addiction due to high amounts of refined sugar and fat in diets. Whole foods on the other hand, with their amino acids, vitamins, minerals, glucose and fatty acids packed with fiber along with many other nutrients, do not perpetuate the same addictive problem.
Whole foods represent foods that retain their natural composition as well as contain no artificial additives or preservatives and have gone through little or no processing (i.e. cooking, grinding, or blending). Whole foods contain vitamins, minerals, water, fatty acids, amino acids, carbohydrates, fiber and much more.
Each whole food, be it a nut or apple, quinoa or banana, contains more nutrients than we are currently familiar with. In other words, we do not yet have a complete list of all the nutrients inside whole foods that are essential to human nutrition.
While we do not yet fully understand how these nutrients interrelate with each other or how they are distributed inside our bodies, however we are beginning to understand that they are codependent in their function. Our bodies have been in tight relationship with whole foods for as long as we have been on this planet. We require the full spectrum nutrition for optimal functioning, which only whole foods can provide.
Processed foods have their natural composition altered in some way. This is a very wide field, which I will touch upon only on the surface. First of all, not all processing is unhealthy, of course. Light processing like cooking, freezing, blending, soaking, fermenting or drying can be quite healthy if done using whole foods and avoiding heavily processed ingredients.
Some dried herbs (e.g. basil, chili, cilantro, dill, garlic, ginger, lemongrass, oregano, and parsley) are high in antioxidants and beneficial to our health. Fermented foods have shown to be highly beneficial for our gut as well as brain health and are being used in nutritional psychiatry. Sprouting grains increases their digestibility, improves amino acid profile, B vitamins and sugar composition.
Foods with heavier processing or added ultraprocessed elements is usually what we have in mind when we speak about processed foods. Heavily processed foods can be extracted from whole foods (e.g. oils, sugars, MSG, food dyes, extracted proteins, other food stabilizing additives, etc) or artificial sources (e.g. artificial food dyes are a byproducts of burning coal tar). Most food processing also involves natural or artificial agents (salt, sugar, sodium or potassium benzoate, parabens, etc.) to preserve freshness and prevent spoiling.
While eating whole foods will give you unspoiled fatty acids, extracted lipids can become very unstable and oxidize quickly during processing, which produces dangerous free radicals and degrades proteins and vitamins. Solid fats and added sugars are known to excite our taste buds, however they provide nothing but empty calories (e.g. pizzas, conventional pastry and breads, cakes, candy, and other artificial and sugary drinks). When I hear “empty calorie,” I ask myself what they are empty of? They are empty of a large number of beneficial nutrients we find in natural, whole foods.
Whole foods is greater than the sum of its parts
We live in a society where many no longer recognize what is real whole food and what is an artificial product made of its parts. We reduced food to one nutrient by thinking only about proteins, sugar, or fats, but we ignore the whole spectrum of health sustaining nutrients we depend on. We overeat on convenient foods, not realizing that we have overeaten on fats, sugars or salt, which are freely added almost everywhere and created nutritional imbalance along the way.
We forget that individual nutrients are not our enemy, but the form in which they come from and thus, their excess, is. These heavily processed foods and drinks promote weight gain and obesity throughout the world and with that, increases our risk for diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and certain types of cancers.
Living in a modern world we can’t always avoid some heavily processed foods on our plates, however having whole foods as a staple is the surest way to regain not only our waistline, but also our health. A healthy connection with food, where an apple is no longer defined by one of its many nutrients, but by its whole, multi- nutritional package, can have a balanced effect on our body’s overall wellbeing.
Katja Breceljnik is a Clinical Nutritionist who runs the blog More Than An Apple. She graduated from the California College of Natural Medicine and has received a certificate in NeuroEndocrine Regulation & Anti-Aging. She is a passionate advocate for healthy living in a dirty city. She has helped many people with both reversing their symptoms and gaining understanding of the connection between their symptoms and the cause.
Main Photo Credit: Joshua Resnick/ .com; Second Photo Credit: Iryna Denysova/ .com; Third Photo Credit: Joe Gough/ .com; Fourth Photo Credit: Monkey Business Images/ .com
Two Major Studies Just Showed What a Processed Diet Can Do to Our Bodies
Nearly everyone these days seems to be promoting whole foods over processed foods. Think about how terms like ‘whole grain’, ‘clean eating’, ‘all natural’, ‘functional’ and ‘local’ have taken over the lexicon.
Yet, until now, there has been scant scientific evidence to support the eat-whole-foods movement.
In recent weeks, the British Medical Journal published two new populations studies (study 1; study 2) that found a lower risk of heart disease risks and greater longevity among adults who eat less processed food. And a far more rigorous investigation from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) showed that subjects eating ultra-processed foods consumed significantly more calories and gained more weight than the same subjects when they ate minimally processed or whole foods.
Body weight on ultra-processed vs. unprocessed diet for two weeks. (National Institutes of Health)
The NIH paper, published in Cell Metabolism in an issue dated August 6, also offered some surprising theories to explain the benefits of minimally processed foods. At the same time, it acknowledged that ultra-processed foods make several important contributions to the nation’s diet.
The NIH research was led by Kevin Hall, a mathematical modeler who has become a global obesity expert in the past decade. Hall is known for his precise research methods, his sharp analysis of the outcomes, and his nondogmatic views on the worldwide obesity crisis. He doesn’t believe in simple solutions, magic foods or this week’s top-selling diet book.
It enrolled 20 healthy young adults (10 men, 10 women) who agreed to live in a clinic setting for 28 days in a row. This meant they had access only to those foods provided them.
For 14 days, subjects received either an ultra-processed or minimally processed diet; then they were switched immediately to the other diet for 14 days. In both cases, they were allowed to eat as much or as little as they wanted.
This procedure reached the level of a randomized, controlled trial (RCT), considered the “gold standard” for research seeking to establish cause-and-effect associations. Such RCTs are few, because of the high expense, and rarely last 28 days.
The results were eye-popping. Subjects consumed 500 calories per day more on the ultra-processed diet than the minimally processed diet (about 3,000 calories a day vs. 2,500 calories). As a result, they gained two pounds in 14 days, just as short-term calorie math would predict.
Subjects who began with 14 days of ultra-processed eating lost two pounds when they switched to minimally processed eating for the final 14 days.
“Our data suggest that eliminating ultra-processed foods from the diet decreases energy intake and results in weight loss,” the researchers wrote. “Whereas a diet with a large proportion of ultra-processed food increases energy intake and leads to weight gain.”
The big calorie and weight changes occurred even though investigators manipulated the diets to make them as alike as possible. Both diets contained the same relative percentages of carbohydrates, fats, proteins, fiber, sugars, sodium and nutrients.
This was accomplished, in part, by adding soluble fiber to beverages served on the ultra-processed diet, and making sure that the minimally processed diet included plenty of fresh fruit, high in natural sugars.
The ultra-processed diet wasn’t as junky as you might think. It didn’t contain a lot of chips, cookies, candies and sodas but rather convenience foods such as canned soups and grains-in-a-pouch.
“If the ultra-processed diets were allowed to vary in the expected way from the unprocessed diet, it might have led to a larger difference in calorie intake,” Hall commented by email.
In a June presentation at the annual meeting of the American Society for Nutrition, Hall said we should not allow ourselves to be fooled by processed foods.
Projecting photos of a homemade stew with beef and vegetables and a commercial veggie burger, he noted: “The ultra-processed products are not variants of the foods and meals. They are formulated from industrial ingredients and contain little or no intact food.”
Why do processed foods induce more eating and weight gain than unprocessed foods? The NIH trial was not designed to answer that question, but Hall and co-workers uncovered an interesting possibility.
When eating ultra-processed foods, subjects consumed calories 50 percent faster than when eating minimally processed foods. This probably happened because processed foods are often softer and easier to chew and swallow.
They also contain more calories for a given volume of food. That is, they have a higher “energy density”.
It generally takes about 20 minutes for the gut to release hormones that reduce our appetite by telling the brain we are getting full. When we eat quickly, our calorie consumption may race ahead of the gut-brain connection.
The NIH data supported this, revealing more PYY (an appetite reducing hormone) and less ghrelin (a hunger hormone) in subjects eating unprocessed foods. “These are plausible hypotheses regarding the mechanisms underlying the observed differences between diets,” said Hall.
The minimally processed diet also included more insoluble fiber than the ultra-processed diet. Insoluble fiber moves through the stomach and GI system without being broken down and absorbed by the body.
“We speculated that the insoluble fiber content in the unprocessed diet may have led to reduced calorie absorption and increased satiety,” said Hall.
The NIH paper is not a broadside against processed foods. The researchers point out that processed foods cost 60 percent less than unprocessed foods, deliver food energy and nutrients, are offer great convenience in a hyper-speed world.
They’re also generally not implicated in those scary E. coli headlines that usually refer to contaminated whole meats and fresh vegetables.
Hall and colleagues note that you can work minimally processed foods into “a wide variety of healthy dietary approaches including low-carb, low-fat, plant-based or animal-based diets.”
In other words, choose the foods you want to focus on, and eat them in their whole or minimally processed form: Apples are better than apple juice, whole oats are better than commercial granolas, fresh or frozen turkey breast is better than packaged turkey bacon or lunch slices, and so on.
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