Struggling with Your Weight? Cut Ultra-Processed Foods from Your Diet

Janet Tiberian Author
By Janet Tiberian
June 12, 2019
Highly Processed Foods Can Lead to Weight Gain

You’ve heard it many times: limit your intake of highly processed foods. You know the fast, ready-to-eat convenient foods with a long list of hard to pronounce ingredients. Some are easy to recognize -- soft drinks (including diet soda), fast food menu items and packaged baked goods, to name a few. However, some of these so called “ultra-processed” foods, like energy bars, flavored yogurt and breakfast cereals are marketed as health foods. 

These foods, even the ones marketed as “healthy,” are typically low in nutrients, high in sodium and jacked up with additives and preservatives. That’s reason enough to skip them. The other reason is diets high in ultra-processed foods are now linked to obesity, according to a study published in Cell Metabolism.

“American obesity rates gradually rose alongside the growth in our industrial food system,” says Bernard Kaminetsky, MD, medical director, MDVIP. “It’s been a problem for several decades and has reach epidemic proportions.”

Despite public health programs designed to help control obesity, the rates continue rising. As of now the U.S. obesity rate is approaching 40 percent and is expected to reach about 50 percent in 2030.  

Obesity has consequences far beyond not fitting into your favorite jeans. It’s associated with raising your risk for heart disease, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, sleep apnea, kidney disease, fatty liver disease, osteoarthritis and certain types of cancer. 

Managing your weight is complex process. Weight is heavily influenced by the calories you take in minus calories your burn (via activity and metabolism). Altering any part of this equation will affect your weight. Yet many people who follow this equation and still have a tough time managing their weight because other variables can interfere.

In the new study on ultra-processed foods, National Institutes of Health (NIH) researchers studied the diets of 20 inpatient adults (10 male and 10 female) with stable body weight, average age of 31 and BMI of 27 for 28 days. Each study participant was given an ultra-processed diet and an unprocessed diet for two weeks that matched their usual calories, sugar, fat, fiber and macronutrients. 

Results found most people ate around 500 additional calories while on the ultra-processed diet. Several theories support these results. Ultra-processed foods appear to increase appetite, leading to overeating. In fact, these foods may actually be engineered to increase appetite to the point of causing compulsive eating. And these foods seem to disrupt signals from the gut to the brain, reinforcing the need for more food, despite eating enough calories.     

“This study suggests that ultra-processed foods – whether they appear healthful or unhealthful – seem to cause weight gain,” says Kaminetsky. 

This NIH study is not the first to recommend limiting ultra-processed foods. In a large prospective study published in The BMJ, researchers found a 10 percent increase in the proportion of ultra-processed foods in a diet was linked to 10 percent increase in the overall risk for cancer and breast cancer specifically.

“It’s practically impossible to eat a diet completely comprised of whole foods. Most of the foods we eat involve some sort of processing; just do your best to eliminate the ultra-processed foods from your diet. And talk to your primary care physician if you need some guidance,” Kaminetsky says.

Here are a few examples of ultra-processed foods.  

  • Potato chips, particularly flavored potato chips; instead use tortilla chips, pita chips or simple kettle potato chips that include a very short list of ingredients
  • Flavored breakfast cereals; instead, use oatmeal made with rolled oats or steel cut oats
  • Soda; instead use sparkling water
  • Frozen potato flakes or hash browns; instead, defrost a bag of frozen potatoes and mash/dice and cook
  • Flavored yogurt; instead use plain yogurt with fruit   

If you’re struggling with weight or your diet, talk to your primary care doctor. If you don’t have a primary care physician, consider partnering with an MDVIP-affiliated physician. MDVIP doctors have the time to work with you and develop a wellness plan that can help you eat healthier. Find a physician near you and begin your partnership in health » 


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About the Author
Janet Tiberian Author
Janet Tiberian

Janet Tiberian is MDVIP's health educator. She has more than 25 years experience in chronic disease prevention and therapeutic exercise.

View All Posts By Janet Tiberian
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