If you’re like me, you spend most of your time running from one job to the next, without much time to really slow down. When my life is chaotic, the first thing to go is my diet. No, I don’t mean I binge on chips and drink a fountain of soda every day. But what I do is actually turned to processed foods. Things that I can cook quickly, because I just don’t have the time to be in the kitchen all day preparing healthy options. And while I know that those meals aren’t “healthy”, I didn’t consider them to be “unhealthy”, until now. A U.S. government-led trial suggests that anyone who eats mostly processed food will take in more calories and gain more weight than those who don’t. Even if the diets are the same otherwise – in terms of fat, carbs and other nutrients.
The study essentially looked at people who ate ultra-processed foods as well as those who didn’t. You’re probably wondering what qualifies ultra-processed food, and the answer is relatively simple. The research team used guidelines developed by the United Nations, which take into account the different types of industrialized processing a food or ingredient goes through before it ends up on your plate. For example, an ultra-processed breakfast might include pancakes, sausages, and hash browns. While an unprocessed breakfast would contain blueberries, raw nuts and oatmeal.
Within the study, dieticians created the meals for each diet, and designed them to match roughly in terms of total calories, macronutrients (like fat and sugar), sodium and even fiber. The participants were told to eat as much or little as they wanted. Together with freely available snacks, each person had the option to eat up to twice as many daily calories as they would likely need to stay at their current weight, based on a preliminary screening.
But the outcome was interesting. Those on the ultra-processed diet ate approximately 500 extra calories per day, and they gained body fat and about one pound of weight by the two-week mark of the study. The participants on the unprocessed diet lost body fat and dropped at least one pound. While these results might seem obvious on the surface, but what isn’t clear is why people over ate on the ultra-processed diet.
In recent years, many experts have gravitated to the simple, intuitive idea that since ultra-processed foods tend to be richer in fat, sugar, and salt, it’s these three nutrients that are largely to blame for the rise in weight, obesity, and metabolic disorders. But given how this particular study was designed, that doesn’t seem to add up. The study matched the fat, sugar and salt levels, which demonstrates that eating sugar found in a banana isn’t the same as eating that same sugar when it’s found in cereal.
While I don’t think we can draw any major conclusions from this particular trial, it does provide some interesting information that should be studied more. I mean, many of us have adopted a low carb lifestyle, but maybe that’s not the answer when it comes to losing weight. I know that I look forward to more studies on this topic.