Have ultra-processed foods caused the obesity epidemic in the United States and around the globe? Let me refrain from hyperbole (too late!) by saying that research published in Cell Metabolism earlier this year suggests we should be cautious about eating too many of these ultra-processed foods. Or “foods”, if you’ll forgive a bit more drama.
Kevin Hall and his colleagues published a paper that compared two groups eating similar diets over the course of two weeks. These groups were carefully matched so they were given the same number of calories, same amount of sugar, fat, fiber, carbohydrates, protein, and so on. The big difference was that one group had what you might think of as “real food” and the other group had ultra-processed versions of similar foods. Imagine the “real food” group having some homemade apple pie for dessert and the ultra-processed group having an apple pie, so filled with preservatives that it can sit on a grocery store shelf for a couple of months. You get the idea! The study participants were told they could eat as much or as little as they desired.
The results were fascinating! Get this…the folks eating ultra-processed food gained a couple of pounds, while those eating real food lost a couple of pounds. All of this in just two weeks! Why? Here’s how I like to explain it to my clients. There’s a lot of non-nutritive content in ultra-processed foods. While your stomach might feel full from the volume you took in, your brain gets the message that there’s not a lot of FUEL available to help the body function. When the brain detects a lack of fuel in the form of nutritious food, it responds by making you feel hungrier.
How can you recognize (and then hopefully avoid) ultra processed foods? Read the ingredient list at the bottom of the nutrition label. If you see items on the ingredient list that are familiar, things that you would use in your own kitchen, then it’s probably not ultra-processed. However, when you read ingredients that you can’t pronounce, that you would never use when cooking, that sound more like chemical names than food names, then you may be looking at an ultra-processed food. Want some examples? Try to avoid things like maltodextrin, xanthum gum, soy lecithin, carrageenan, annatto, guar gum, acesulfame potassium, natamycin, red dye #40, and partially hydrogenated anything!
Ted Kyle’s blog posts at ConscienHealth are an excellent source of unbiased scientific information about obesity. He makes a great point about ultra-processed foods. We have to be careful not to lump in things like plain (yellow box) Cheerios with highly processed hot dogs. And so while you probably don’t need to run screaming from all ultra-processed foods, maybe it’s time for us to focus on a plant forward diet, based on real food ingredients, with infrequent treats from the shelves storing the ultra-processed “foods”.
Thanks for listening! I wish you the best of health.
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