Ultra-Processed Food and Obesity

The last I checked, the U.S. is still facing another raging epidemic other than Covid -19 – one that is been in some degree affecting a large percentage of the population (40%) for quite some time – obesity. Obesity has even been named as a risk factor for the Covid pandemic.

A feature of this month’s issue of Nutrition Action Health Letter titled Why We Overeat by Bonnie Liebman should be important for al of us who eat the food found in the Standard American Diet (SAD).

As a researcher at the National Institutes of Health, Kevin Hall explains: “We’re trying to understand the properties of our food environment that regulate appetite and cause people to overeat and gain body fat”. Based on several well designed studies, his group found “only one diet led people to gain weight and gain body fat, Hall says, and that diet is the ultra-processed-food diet.”. Examples of ultra-processed foods include breakfast cereals, pizza, soda, chips and other salty/sweet/savory snacks, packaged baked goods, microwaveable frozen meals, instant soups and sauces,

History tells us that during the first decades of food production, processed foods became more plentiful than had ever been offered the food consumer. This processing began in the early 1950’snd has taken over the food industry ever since then.  

“Companies are all about maximizing the allure of their products” says Michael Moss, a prize winning former New York Times reporter whose recent book is titled: Hooked, Food, Free Will, and How the Food Giants Exploit Our Addictions.  It all begins with three major ingredients: Salt, Sugar, and Fat.

“The industry came up with the term “bliss point” to describe the perfect amount of sugar in a drink or food that would please most Americans. Not too little, not too much”

“In snack foods like potato chips, 50% of the calories typically come from fat which gives them that melt in your mouth phenomenon, which so much ultra processed food has. You hardly even have to chew it.”

“Salt is the flavor burst because it’s often on the surface of the food and the first thing that touches the tongue”.

But wait! There are other factors.

“Fat plus carbs foods with high concentrations of both fat and refined carbohydrates like chocolate, ice cream French fries, pizza, cookies and chips are the foods that most people find most irresistible”, says Ashley Gearhardt, associate professor of psychology at the University of Michigan.

Other factors that aid in making the consumer choose ultra-processed foods can include:

Variety, speed (unprocessed food often takes more chewing), advertising (especially TV ads),

Cost. The food industry goal is to make their products as inexpensive as possible for the consumer.

Snacking: “The food industry has developed more and more products that can act as the fourth meal of the day.” Just look at the abundance in the snack aisles.

What To Do

One way is to concentrate more on nutrient dense foods then on calorie dense foods — of course this increase requires adding fruits and vegetables.

Another good source on how to curb your ultra processed food intake is presented by Barbara Rolls, director of the Laboratory for the Study of Human Ingestive Behavior at Penn State, who wrote the Ultimate Volumetrics Diet. 

A study in 2017 by Rolls randomly assigned women with obesity to either eat less fat or eat less fat and eat more fruits and vegetables for a year. After a year, the fruit and vegetable eaters had lost more weight (17 pounds) than the other group (14 pounds), and they reported being less hungry.

“We eat with our eyes and our brain, If we see a big portion, that sets us up to feel more satisfied. If a plate looks half empty, that sets us up to feel hungry”, says Rolls.

All in all, be aware and mindful of what you eat. Mindless eating can be habit forming as usually we pay little attention to what and how much food we are eating. Studies show that we eat more macaroni and cheese while watching TV than while listening to music.

Lays potato chips dares us with the challenge: “bet you

can’t eat just one”.

“Stay away from the gigantic calorie counts in most restaurant food, whether it’s sit down or fast food. Cook your own food whenever possible. Stick with water, coffee, tea, or other calorie free drinks.”

Don’t let multinational corporations dictate your diet and your health. It’s up to you to make those choices.

Sources

Bonnie Liebman. Nutrition Action Healthletter, Center for Science in the Public Interest, April, 2021.

Michael Moss. Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us. Random House, 2014.

UNHEALTHY PROCESSED FOOD AND SNACKS CAN LEAD TO OBESITY

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