Will the Real Food Please Stand Up?

Why overconsumption of processed foods is making us fat

Posted Jan 09, 2014

Is overconsumption of processed (“fake”) foods making us fat? You bet it is. In fact, all things being equal (translation: two people eating the same number of calories each day), a 10% increase in the consumption of highly processed (“fake”) food increases the BMI of individuals by 4.25%. Even a 10% increase in the consumption of partially processed foods increases BMI by 3.95%. In other words, what you eat is more important that how many calories you eat.

So what’s the problem with McDonalds and other foods that nutritionists deem cheap and unhealthy? They’re “fake” foods. Let’s say that it’s 3:00 pm and you’re starving. You can have a piece of birthday cake (300 calories) or 2 sticks of chicken satay with peanut dip (268 calories). Guess which one is going to signal your body that you’re full and keep you full longer? Hint: it’s not the birthday cake. You could even have a 150 calorie strawberry almond milk smoothie (so half the calories of the cake) and you’d still be more satisfied than with that piece of birthday cake. Why? It all has to do with the nutrient density of that snack.

What’s in a piece of birthday cake? Highly processed food. Flour. Sugar. Maybe a tiny bit of egg. Birthday cake may be energy dense (lots of calories), but it’s not nutrient dense, so it’s not going to sustain you for very long. This is true of all “fake” foods. But talk about unprocessed foods like lean whole meats (chicken breast—not from the deli, but actual chicken breast), nuts, or even fruit (strawberries) and homemade unprocessed nut milk, and now you’ve got something that will last you until dinner. So even if even if you eat the same caloric intake (birthday cake v. chicken satay with peanut sauce), the chicken would still leave you feeling less hungry and, likely, thinner than if you ate that birthday cake.

Why? Again, it comes back to your hormones. While there are many factors that lead to obesity, one of the main problems I see in my clients is their food choices. Most of my clients come in eating solely processed food. Here’s the problem with that approach: The food choices you are making are not being recognized by your body as actual food—there are so few nutrients left in processed foods that you never feel full. In other words, you feel hungry all the time because all you’re consuming is empty calories. It’s as if your brain doesn’t register the calories you’re eating. Why? If you eat high sugar or high fat foods (common ingredients in highly processed foods), these do little to suppress ghrelin (you’re “I’m Hungry!” hormone) production. So, you’re always hungry, yet paradoxically always struggling with your weight. To further compound the problem, you never get full because the hormone that signals your brain that it’s time to stop eating (CCK) is best stimulated by foods containing fat and protein, not carbohydrates.

Weight Loss Success Tip: Eat Unprocessed, Nutrient Dense Foods

One of the reasons people fail on “diets” is because they are hungry. All the time. What we’ve learned from the research is that if you are on a diet, you need to be very conscious not only of the calorie content of what you are eating, but also the actual nutrient density of the meal. While eating a 300 calorie piece of birthday cake every once in a while won’t derail your diet, if you’re going to restrict calories, you’d be much better if those calories you eat are nutrient dense.

Here’s what we know about obesity. Individuals who are obese routinely have low ghrelin levels compared to leaner individuals. In other words, overweight and obese individuals never feel full and it has something to do, again paradoxically, with their excess body fat. When you accumulate excess body fat, especially around the middle, it decreases your body’s ability to secrete and recognize its own insulin (a condition called insulin resistance that leads to Type 2 Diabetes). It also messes with the body’s ghrelin production, which makes it increasingly difficult to lose weight and keep it off as obese individuals are less likely to ever feel satiated. Combine that with food choices low in nutrient density and, Houston, we have a problem.

That being said, you don't need to be perfect. No one is. Tune in next time for my take on How Not to Be Perfect!

About the Author

Mary E. Pritchard, Ph.D., is a professor in the Department of Psychology at Boise State University.

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