How processed foods make us fat

New research suggests that when it comes to weight gain, processed foods deserve their bad boy reputation.

Do you start your day with sugary cereal or a pre-packaged muffin? Or do you have low-fat yoghurt with fruit for breakfast?

If your diet is high in processed foods, you will gain weight faster than if you eat a less processed diet, says new US research.

And this faster weight gain happens even if processed and less processed foods contain the same amount of sugar, fat, salt and protein.

Researchers found people who ate a processed diet consumed 508 more calories a day on average, leading to weight gain of around 1kg in two weeks.

People eating the unprocessed diet lost a kilo in two weeks.

And weight gain isn’t the only issue – two recent studies have linked highly processed foods like packaged baked goods and snacks, fizzy drinks and heat-and-eat meals to an increased risk of heart disease and even death.

What are processed foods?

The more a food is changed from its natural state, the more processed it is.

So processed foods include biscuits, meat pies, butter, chocolate, salty snacks, ready-to-eat meals, pre-prepared sauces, canned or processed meats and frozen meals.

Unprocessed foods include fruit, vegetables, lean meat and fish, nuts and seeds, legumes and grains.

What do processed foods do to our body?

Processed foods are higher in sugars, salt and fat that push up blood pressure and cholesterol levels and increase the risk of obesity, heart disease and some cancers.

High levels of sugar get into our bloodstream quickly, raising blood sugar levels and increasing the risk of diabetes.

Processed foods are also low in fibre, which is important for good digestion.

processed foods

Why do processed foods make us gain weight?

Essentially, processed foods make us want more.

“Processed foods have increased palatability and trigger areas of the brain associated with enjoyment,” says Professor John Dixon, obesity expert at Baker Heart and Diabetes Institute.

“So, people eat more and put on weight, but it’s not just fast foods that have this effect.

“The best restaurants and celebrity chefs do the same thing with the foods they offer.”

The US researchers say the texture of processed foods may also make us eat faster.

“If you’re eating very quickly, perhaps you’re not giving your gastrointestinal tract enough time to signal to your brain that you’re full,” notes Kevin Hall, of the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases.

“When this happens, you might easily overeat.”

Prof Dixon’s top tips to cut back on processed foods include:

  • Take your diet back to basics and enjoy natural foods. The Mediterranean diet is a good starting point.
  • Introduce natural, unprocessed foods to children when they are young to develop healthy eating habits for life. “Add vegetables one at a time so children get used to vegetables,” says John. “And give children water or milk to drink.”
  • Keep treat foods as treats – have them occasionally and not every day.

Written by Sarah Marinos.