Diets come in about as many shapes and sizes as the people who try them. And in the words of perhaps one of the most famous dieters of all time: “If there were a shortcut to having a healthy body, I’m sure I’d have the secret by now,” Oprah wrote that in her blog, “What I know For Sure.” She also knows that she’s “fallen prey to just about every diet scam known to womankind—anything that represented a quick fix. A magic pill or potion. An easy way to get what I wanted without having to step onto that StairMaster every morning.”
But whether it’s low carb, low fat, keto, paleo or Mediterranean, nearly all experts do agree on one thing: it’s best to avoid ultra-processed foods. And now, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), there is some “solid scientific evidence to back up that advice.”
In other words, losing weight or avoiding putting it on in the first place, may be as simple as avoiding consumption of processed foods. But wait, that’s not simple at all.
According to eatthis.com, while trading fake food for the real deal will most likely improve your health, mood and appearance, your body as well as your brain makes the transition tough.
“Processed foods are chemical-laden, addictive foods usually sold in jars, boxes and bags, and armies of well-paid food scientists make it their missions to come up with recipes that appeal to your taste buds, even if it means causing havoc to your health,” Eat This Not That! reported. And it’s precisely these kinds of products that make up almost 60 percent of our daily calories and 90 percent of the added sugar we consume.
“These foods are so hard to say no to because they are loaded with added sugars and fats, which physically change how they feel inside the mouth,” Lauren Minchen MPH, RDN, CDN explained to eatthis.com. “The altered texture and taste actually make the body crave more of it.”
“When you put processed foods into your body, not only are you choosing to fuel your body with nasty chemicals, you’re depriving it of the nutrients it needs,” Eat This! Not That!—an information source in the food and wellness spaces—reports. “Processed foods are often stripped or void of nutrients, so it’s not like you’re eating an apple slice that’s been dipped in gasoline; you’re not even getting the fiber from the apple anymore. From weight loss to migraine relief, you can reap some serious health benefits if you ditch processed foods.”
According to the editors at Eatthis.com, in “21 Things That Happen to Your Body When You Stop Eating Processed Food,” not only will you lose weight faster, age slower, get less headaches and have better hair, skin and brain function, among others, you will actually start to hate processed foods.
According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK) nearly 40 percent of U.S. adults are obese, and more than 18 percent of children and teens are obese. The NIDDK says individuals with obesity may suffer devastating health problems, face reduced life expectancy and experience stigma and discrimination. In addition, obesity is a strong risk factor for type 2 diabetes, fatty liver disease, heart disease, sleep apnea, metabolic syndrome, osteoarthritis and some cancers as well as many other disorders.
In his article “Why It’s Harder to Lose Weight as You Age,” Ruben Castaneda says it’s tougher for men and women to drop pounds as they transition from young adulthood into middle age than it is to shed weight during young adulthood. But the factors behind middle-age weight gain tend to be biological and related to lifestyle, he reports. Changing hormones and a loss of estrogen can cause women to gain about 15 pounds around the time of menopause, and men going through middle age lose testosterone, which can cause the diminution of muscle mass.
In her presentation—”How Dietary Needs Change with Aging”—at Tufts University in Boston, Massachusetts, Katherine Tucker, of the Jean Mayer USDA HNRCA said dietary needs change with aging in several ways. She said people become less active, their metabolism slows, their energy requirement decreases, all of which mean that they need to eat less. “Recent research demonstrates that because older adults’ abilities to absorb and utilize many nutrients become less efficient, their nutrient requirements (particularly as a function of body mass) actually increase.” She noted that chronic conditions and medications can affect nutrition requirements as well. “Maintaining a nutrient-dense diet is critically important for older adults because of the impact of food intake on health. Years of research have demonstrated that diet quality has a huge effect on physical condition, cognitive condition, bone health, eye health, vascular function and the immune system.”
Changes in lifestyle due to less physical activity, more family responsibilities, career demands and bad eating habits, can also attribute to weight gain as we age. And retirement can add to a sedentary lifestyle with less movement and even less attempts at increasing your heart rate—all the more reason to control what you’re putting into your body.
And now the NIH is giving you reason to try. “In the first randomized, controlled study to compare the effects of ultra-processed with unprocessed foods, NIH researchers found healthy adults gained about a pound per week when they were given a daily diet high in ultra-processed foods, which often contain ingredients such as hydrogenated fats, high fructose corn syrup, flavoring agents, emulsifiers, and preservatives,” the NIH announced last week. “In contrast, when those same people ate unprocessed whole foods, they lost weight. Intriguingly, the weight differences on the two diets occurred even though both kinds of foods had been carefully matched from a nutritional standpoint, including calorie density, fiber, fat, sugar and salt.”
Researchers at NIH’s National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases used the Metabolic Clinical Research Unit (MCRU) at the NIH Clinical Center in Bethesda, MD—a unit specifically equipped to study issues of diet and metabolism—to explore the connection between processed foods and weight gain. Their study was published in Cell Metabolism. Protocols at the MCRU focus on the regulation of human metabolism in healthy volunteers and patients with various metabolic conditions, including obesity, diabetes, liver diseases, rare genetic conditions, neurological disorders and cancers.
In the study, researchers admitted 20 adults of stable weight to the NIH Clinical Center, where each volunteer was randomly assigned to eat either an ultra-processed or unprocessed diet for two consecutive weeks. They then switched to the other diet for another two weeks.
Dieticians planned meals to match for total calories, energy density, macro nutrients, sugar, sodium and fiber. The ultra-processed group, for example, might have a bagel with cream cheese and turkey bacon for breakfast, while the unprocessed group might dine on oatmeal with bananas, walnuts and skim milk. The NIH reported that for lunch one of the study’s processed meals consisted of quesadillas, refried beans and diet lemonade. An unprocessed lunch consisted of a spinach salad with chicken breast, apple slices, bulgur and sunflower seeds with a side of grapes. Study participants were free to eat as little or as much food as they wanted at mealtimes and to snack between meals. As it turns out, people on the ultra-processed diet ate significantly more—about 500 extra calories per day on average—than when they were on the unprocessed diet, the NIH reports.
Researchers found that energy intake was greater during the ultra-processed diet, as was the consumption of carbohydrate and fat, but not protein. Weight changes were highly correlated with energy intake, with participants gaining during the ultra-processed diet and losing during the unprocessed diet. The NIH Researchers concluded: “Limiting consumption of ultra-processed foods may be an effective strategy for obesity prevention and treatment.”
For years, physicians, dietitians and dieters alike have been proposing that there is a connection between the rise of packaged, ultra-processed foods and America’s obesity epidemic. But, says the NIH, “correlation is not causation, and controlled studies of what people actually eat are tough to do. As a result, definitive evidence directly tying ultra-processed foods to weight gain has been lacking.”
The main difference between each diet was the number of calories consumed from ultra-processed versus unprocessed foods as defined by the NOVA diet classification system. “This system categorizes food based on the nature, extent and purpose of food processing, rather than its nutrient content,” the NIH reported. “Each week, researchers measured the energy expenditure, weight and changes in body composition of all volunteers. After two weeks on the ultra-processed diet, volunteers gained about two pounds on average. That’s compared to a loss of about two pounds for those on the unprocessed diet.”
Further, metabolic testing showed that people expended more energy on the ultra-processed diet. “However, that wasn’t enough to offset the increased consumption of calories. As a result, participants gained pounds and body fat,” the NIH reported.
The National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute of the NIH proposes the following Healthy Eating Plan that gives your body the nutrients it needs every day while staying within your daily calorie goal for weight loss:
- Emphasize vegetables, fruits, whole grains and fat-free or low-fat dairy products
- Include lean meats, poultry, fish, beans, eggs, and nuts
- Limit saturated and trans fats, sodium, and added sugars
- Control portion sizes
In addition, the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute says in order to lose weight, most people need to reduce the number of calories they get from food and beverages (energy IN) and increase their physical activity (energy OUT).
According to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute:
- For a weight loss of 1–1 ½ pounds per week, daily intake should be reduced by 500 to 750 calories.
- Eating plans that contain 1,200–1,500 calories each day will help most women lose weight safely.
- Eating plans that contain 1,500–1,800 calories each day are suitable for men and for women who weigh more or who exercise regularly.
- Very low calorie diets of fewer than 800 calories per day should not be used unless you are being monitored by your doctor.