Ultra-Processed Foods Drive Weight Gain, Studies Prove
Weight-Gain may be associated specifically with Ultra-Processed Food
A team led by researchers at Tufts University found that eating a lot of processed food leads to weight gain — even if you're following a healthy diet otherwise.
In fact, participants on the low-calorie diet consumed an average of 508 extra calories per day compared to those on the control group, according to a new study published in Cell Metabolism.
And while the calorie count might seem like it could explain why people put on weight, there's another factor at play: the composition of what we eat. "Ultra-processed foods tend to be very energy dense," says lead author Dr. Michael Hall, assistant professor of nutrition at Tufts University School of Nutrition Science & Policy. "They're often highly palatable and contain lots of added sugars, fats and salts."
The researchers analyzed data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, a nationally representative survey of American adults conducted every five years since 1999.
They looked at how many calories people in each group consumed, as well as what percentage of calories came from different kinds of macronutrients, such as carbs, proteins and fats.
While both groups had similar caloric intake, the ultra-processed group ate more carbohydrates, less protein and more total fat than the unprocessed group.
And while the amount of calories didn't differ much, the composition of the calories did. For instance, the ultra-processed foods had more saturated fat, dietary cholesterol and sodium, and fewer vitamins A and D.
In addition to being fattier and having less nutrients, the ultra-processed food also contained more additives and preservatives.
This includes artificial sweeteners, colors, flavors and dyes. Plus, some ultra-processed foods include trans fats — fatty acids that are linked to heart disease and cancer.
Overall, the researchers say, the findings suggest that the rise of ultra-processed foods has contributed to our growing obesity rates.
This trend is not limited to Americans.
With the proliferation of fast food chains in India, urban India is seeing a massive rise in the consumption of ultra-processed foods that are high in sodium, sugar and fat. In addition, with apps that door deliver food in a jiffy, it has become that much easier to indulge in these foods often.
With these patterns, urban India is also seeing a rise in obesity rates both among adults and children alike.
Ultra-Processed Foods May Lead to Consumption of Excess Calories & Subsequent Weight-Gain - A Study
The research team found that participants assigned to the ultra-processed diet consumed about 500 calories per day more than those assigned to the unprocessed diet, even though both groups ate ad libitum (at will).
They also gained weight over the course of the study.
"Our findings suggest that diets high in processed foods are associated with excess calorie intake and weight gain," says lead author Benjamin Lebherz, PhD, assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. "These data provide further evidence that dietary patterns rich in ultra-processed foods are likely to contribute to obesity."
According to an NIH Study, Eating Ultra Processed Food May be Associated with Overeating and Increase in Weight
The study compared the dietary habits of people consuming ultra-processed foods versus those eating minimally processed foods. Participants were randomly assigned to eat one meal per day over three days containing either an ultra-processed or minimally processed diet.
Both groups received the same number of calories, carbohydrates, fat, protein, fiber, vitamins, minerals, and water.
However, participants consuming ultra-processed diets consumed more calories and gained more body mass than those consuming minimally processed diets.
In addition, the amount of energy needed to digest and absorb the nutrients in the ultra-processed foods was greater than the energy required to process the nutrients in the minimally processed foods.
The authors speculate that this increase in digestion may explain why people eating ultra-processed diets ate more calories.
Could Highly Processed Food Increase Your Risk of Cancer? NutriNet-Santé Prospective Cohort Study
Ultra-processed food consumption refers to processed products that are highly industrialized and often contain additives, preservatives or added sugars.
These types of foods have been linked to:
- Weight gain and obesity
- Cardiovascular diseases
- Metabolic syndrome
- High blood pressure
- And certain cancers.
This study aimed to assess the association between consumption of ultra-processed food and cancer incidence among adults participating in the French NutriNet-Sante cohort.
A total of 24,945 participants aged 18–75 years without history of cancer at baseline were included in the analysis. During a median follow-up period of 5.6 years, 2,851 incident cases of cancer were recorded. Consumption of ultra-processed products was assessed using a validated semi-quantitative 136-item FFQ.
After adjustment for potential confounders including age, sex, body mass index, physical activity level, smoking status, alcohol intake, family history of cancer, education level, income, energy intake, fiber intake, glycemic load, saturated fat intake, and red meat intake, each additional serving/day of ultra-processed product consumption was associated with:
- Increased risks of overall cancer, digestive system cancers (HR: 1.14; 95% CI: 1.00–1.29)
- Breast cancer (HR: 1.25; 95% CI: 0.99–1.58), endometrial cancer (HR: 1·50; 95% CI:1.07–2.09), ovarian cancer (HR: 1..74; 95% CI:0.98–3.01), and thyroid cancer (HR: 1.64; 95% CI:.54–4.59). Our findings suggest that increasing consumption of ultra-processes products could contribute to cancer development.
Ultra-processed Food Consumption and Risk of Type 2 Diabetes Among Participants of the NutriNet-Santé Prospective Cohort
The authors found that people eating ultra-processed food had a greater risk of developing type 2 diabetes compared to those consuming minimally processed foods. They concluded that "ultra-processing could be associated with increased risk of T2DM."
India is today already the Diabetic capital of the world. With an increasing propensity to order in and eat out of fast food joints, this is primed to only worsen.
Ultra-processed foods may facilitate overconsumption and lead to obesity
Recent studies suggest that ultra-processed foods—particularly those classified as processed according to the Nutrient Profiling Model developed by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA)—may facilitate overconsumption and contribute to the development of overweight/obesity. However, questions remain about whether these products actually cause overeating and how their specific properties might lead to increased consumption. To address these issues, we reviewed recent literature on the relationship between the characteristics of ultra-processed foods and their effects on appetite and eating behavior. We found evidence that several features of ultra-processed foods increase hunger and decrease satiety, including high energy density and low water and fiber content; fast pace of eating; ease of access; and taste preferences. These findings support the hypothesis that some of the properties of ultra-processed food make it easier to consume large amounts of energy and calories than less processed alternatives.
Healthy Food vs. Highly Processed Food: What to Know
A lot of people know that it’s important to eat well and exercise regularly. But do you really understand what constitutes a healthy diet? In a world of information overload, identifying what a healthy diet is a task in itself and not an easy one at that. Rummaging through fad diets, nutritionally deficient weight loss programs, detox teas and more is time consuming and requires knowledge about nutrition that the average person may not have.
- The most basic distinction between healthy and unhealthier foods is how much processing goes into making them.
- Some foods are minimally processed, like fruits and vegetables; others undergo extensive processing, such as meats, dairy products, refined grains, and sweets.
- Processing refers to the way food is prepared and packaged, as well as the additives used during preparation and packaging. These include preservatives, stabilizers, emulsifiers, colorings, flavor enhancers, sweeteners, oil and salt.
- In general, highly processed foods contain more added sugar, sodium, saturated fat, trans fats, and calories than less processed foods.
- Any food from which something good is removed of bad added is a processed food. This includes oil, sugar, white rice, maida, rava, semiya, etc. These processed food come together or are further processed in ultra-processed dishes
So, what does this mean for you? If you’re looking for ways to lose weight, cut down on stress, improve your overall health, or simply enjoy a healthier version of yourself, it might be worth avoiding highly processed foods altogether.
What are highly processed foods?
The term "highly processed" refers to foods that undergo extensive manufacturing processes. These include adding salt, sugar, fat, oil, preservatives, colorings, flavor enhancers, and other ingredients. In contrast, unprocessed foods are those that haven't been altered much during production. Unprocessed foods tend to contain fewer additives and preservatives, and often have a fresher taste.
According to the FDA, there are three broad types of highly processed foods:
- Foods that are packaged or preserved in ways that preserve natural qualities such as texture, shape, size, and color. Examples include canned fruits and vegetables, frozen meats, breads, cereals, snacks, and jams.
- Food products that have had one or more of their nutrients removed or added. Examples include white flour, margarine, enriched pasta, and low-fat milk.
- Foods that have had part of their original composition changed. Examples include flavored yogurts, cheese spreads, imitation meat products, and soft drinks.
To determine whether a particular food is considered highly processed, you'll want to look for certain characteristics listed above. Some examples include:
- Packaging. Does the product come in a box, bag, jar, bottle, canister, pouch, tube, or wrapper? If yes, it's probably highly processed.
- Preservatives. Do the ingredients list any preservatives, such as BHA (butylated hydroxyanisole), BHT (butylated hydroxytoluene), propyl gallate, sorbic acid, or sulfites?
- Additives. Are there artificial colors, flavors, sweeteners, or thickeners?
- Sodium. Is the product high in sodium?
- Sugar. How many grams of sugar do you find per serving?
- Fat. How much total fat does each serving contain?
- Calories. How many calories are in each serving?
Examples of highly processed foods
Some of the most popular examples of highly processed foods include:
- Sugary beverages: Soda, juice, sports drinks, energy drinks, etc.
- Sweetened breakfast cereals: Froot Loops, Frosted Flakes, Honey Smacks, Rice Krispies Treats, etc.
- Sweeter snack foods: Cookies, crackers, candy bars, etc.
- Baking mixes: Stuffing mix, cake mix, brownie mix, cookie dough, etc.
- Frozen meals
- Canned soups
- Condiments: Mustard, ketchup, salad dressing, mayonnaise, etc.
- Pasta sauces: Alfredo sauce, spaghetti sauce, marinara sauce, etc.
- Salad dressings: Ranch Dressing, Italian Dressing, Thousand Island Dressing, French Dressing, Vinaigrette Dressing, etc.
- Breads: White bread, rye bread, cornbread, pita bread, etc.
- Cereal bars
- Snack cakes
- Ice cream: Vanilla ice cream, chocolate ice cream, strawberry ice cream
- Milk: Low-fat milk, nonfat milk, skim milk, whole milk, etc.
- Yogurt: Fruit yogurt, plain yogurt, Greek yogurt, etc.
- Cheese: American cheese slices, cheddar cheese slices, Swiss cheese slices, mozzarella cheese slices, etc.
- Processed meats: Hot dogs, sausage links, bacon, salami, pepperoni, etc.
- Lunchmeats: Sausage, ham, bologna, etc.
- Meats: Ground beef, hamburger, hot dog, chicken nuggets, etc.
- Seafood: Fish sticks, canned tuna fish, salmon, shrimp, crabmeat, etc.
- Soups: Cream of mushroom soup, tomato soup, chili con carne, etc.
- Sauces: Barbecue sauce, ketchup, mustard, ranch dressing, etc.
- Dairy products: Milk, cottage cheese, sour cream, butter, margarine, etc.
What are considered healthy foods?
In general, fresh vegetables, fruit, beans, seeds, unpolished rice, grains, millets, and nuts are considered unprocessed food products. These foods are often referred to as "whole foods." They don't undergo extensive processing before being sold to consumers.
We commonly refer to these foods because they're in their original, whole forms or very close to it. Whole foods contain nutrients and fiber without added ingredients like preservatives, artificial sweeteners, colors, flavors, or hydrogenated fats.
Here are some examples of healthy whole foods:
- Fresh Vegetables and fruits
- Grains such as brown rice, oats, and quinoa
- Beans, peas, lentils, and soybeans
- Nuts and seeds
- Fresh Herbs and spices
- Legumes such as black beans, kidney beans, navy beans, lima beans, chickpeas, white beans, and lentils
- Dry fruits
Minimally Processed Foods vs Highly Processed Foods
Some of the most important differences include:
- Minimally processed foods typically contain fewer ingredients than highly processed foods.
- Minimally process foods tend to taste less sweet or salty than highly processed foods because they don't contain that much added sugar or sodium
- Minimally processed foods are usually healthier than highly processed foods. They provide nutrients like fiber, protein, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and essential fats.
- Highly processed foods are often found off the shelf and more convenient to eat out of a pack than minimally processed foods which may require you to cook.
- Minimally processed foods and fresh foods may be more expensive than highly processed foods that use cheap ingredients
According to the USDA National Nutrient Database, a 100-gram (3.5 oz.) serving of potato chips contains about 545 calories. A similar amount of cooked potatoes contain only 95 calories.
In general, ultra-process products are often high in sodium, saturated fat, added sugars, oil and/or trans fats. These ingredients have shown to increase risk factors like blood pressure and cholesterol levels. And eating lots of them can lead to obesity and diabetes.
Ultra-processed foods may also be marketed to consumers looking to shed pounds, improve athletic performance, or prevent disease. They're usually found in snack bars, cereals, frozen meals, soups, sauces, dressings, condiments, and other packaged goods.
These types of foods are often characterized by additives and preservatives, artificial colors, flavors, sweeteners, and thickeners. Many of these ingredients don't even have nutritional value. Instead, manufacturers use them to enhance flavor, extend shelf life, and give food a texture that resembles something else.
For instance, some brands add hydrogenated oils or modified corn starch to make foods seem heartier or creamier. Others add artificial dyes or flavors to make things look appealing to children. Still others include chemical stabilizers to keep their products from turning into mush during shipping.
Sweet ultra-processed foods often contain high amounts of added sugars. Many of these foods are targeted towards children and adolescents because they taste good. However, research suggests that consuming too much sugar early in life could lead to obesity later in life.
Highly processed food such as sodas, breakfast cereals, crisps, candies, etc., are made to get you hooked onto them.They achieve this by adding sweetening agents like cane sugar, invert syrups, and high fructose corn syrups. These ingredients provide sweetness without calories, making it easy to consume large quantities.
Manufacturers use marketing tactics to encourage consumers to buy these products. Some companies market their products as healthy alternatives to traditional food products. Others focus on how the product tastes. In either case, the goal is to make the product appealing enough to convince people to purchase it over traditional food options.
Ultra-processed foods can often look like whole foods, but they're actually quite different. They tend to be made up of ingredients that are chemically altered, rather than naturally occurring. This includes additives such as artificial sweeteners, colors, flavors, preservatives, emulsifiers, stabilizers, thickeners, and texturizers.
These types of foods are usually lower in fiber, protein and many micronutrients compared to unaltered versions of those same foods. In fact, studies show that people eat less healthy food when it looks healthier.
However, there are exceptions. Some ultra-processed products do contain added fibers and protein concentrate, which increases the products’ content of these nutrients. Also, some highly processed foods sold as diet, lite, or low-fat can be very low in fats, but this doesn’t necessarily mean these products are healthy.
For example, even though some products may be high in protein, fiber and antioxidants but still not be healthy due to added sugars, high salt and fat.
What is the Best Way Forward?
The best way forward is to completely eliminate all forms of ultra-processed food. While this may seem like a tall task, taking it one step at a time not only makes it easier but also sustainable in the long-run. Any dish is only as good as he ingredients that go into it. When I recommend that you cut out ultra processed food, it doesn't mean you stop eating all your favourite foods forever. It means that you find ways of making the same dish but with whole plant ingredients.
What does this mean?
- Cut out products that are made using refined grains. This includes all purpose flour, polished rice and millets. These are commonly used in everything from pasta to breads and bakes, cookies and creams and more!
- Cut out products that have sugar - white/brown, jaggery, honey, and any sweetener that may spike up your blood sugar levels. They are found in both sweet as well as savoury bites.
- Cut out products that have oil - even cold pressed only. Devoid of fiber, oil is a processed food that has entered every kitchen. They are high in calories and low in nutrients and have been associated with a greater risk of chronic disease. Best to avoid it completely and move towards water-based cooking and baking
For example: Instead of eating oily deep fried potato chips switch to oil-free baked ones
Instead of eating meat burgers with maida buns, switch to whole grain burgers with an oil-free plant-based patty
Instead of eating a sugary, maida cake, switch to date sweetened, whole grain cakes
The healthy versions of these ultra processed foods can be extremely tasty, decadent and fulfilling. My team and I have made it easier for you to do this with our range of whole food plant based products at Sampoorna Ahara.
- These goodies are diabetic friendly and made with health promoting ingredients sourced from framers practicing natural farming. The produce is not only healthy for you but also for the farmers and the land it is grown in.
- They are all completely plant-based, oil-free, sugar/jaggery-free, maida/white-rice-free, free of preservatives and additives - making them a great option for children and adults alike.
- Every single one of these goodies and more are made only using ingredients that are fiber rich, nutrient dense, with healthy fats, no added sugar, artificial colour, chemical preservatives, additive or ingredients that are disease promoting.
You can enjoy everything from cakes and cookies, to Indian snacks, sweets, breads and spreads, meals, energy bars, and more. You can also make your cooking that much healthier by stocking up on staples like nut butters, vinegars and more.
Many of these goodies also ship Pan-India in packaging that eco-conscious as well.
This way you can get the best of both world. Great food and great health!
Next Steps - Get Started Today
Looking to eat healthy? We can help. You can prevent, treat or better manage a lifestyle disease
1. Book an online consultation with Dr. Achyuthan Eswar to understand more about specific lifestyle changes and how you can adopt them
2. Subscribe to our 100% whole food plant based healthy meal plan, designed to help you get and stay healthy from the comfort of your home - Bengaluru only
3. Stock up on delicious Whole Food Plant Based sweets and snacks that are sugar/jaggery-free, oil-free, maida-free and plant-based - Available Pan-India
4. Learn more about a whole food plant based diet on NutritionScience.in and get started on your journey to a healthier tomorrow
5. Sign up for our Plant Based Diet Masterclass on NutritionScience.in and take a deep dive into a whole food plant based diet and how it affects your health
Be Blessed by the Divine!
Dr. Achyuthan Eswar