You’re Eating More Processed Food Than You Think

Processed Food Diet: Why You Eat More

You’re Eating More Processed Food Than You Think
Share on PinterestProcessed foods are usually more convenient and cost less, so you’ll eat more and gain weight more quickly. Getty Images

If you eat a diet high in ultra-processed foods, odds are you’re eating more than you would with an unprocessed diet.

Researchers have long suspected a link between ultra-processed foods and the obesity epidemic.

Now, in a report published in the journal Cell Metabolism, experts have undertaken the first randomized controlled trial comparing differences in calorie consumption between unprocessed and ultra-processed diets.

Even when the two diets in the trial were matched for things such as fat content, participants on the ultra-processed diet still ate more food and gained more weight.

“Because the meals were designed to be matched for carbohydrates, fat, sugar, salt, and calories, I suspected we would find little difference between them in terms of overall calorie intake or weight change,” Kevin Hall, PhD, lead author of the study and a section chief in the Laboratory of Biological Modeling at the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases within the National Institutes of Health (NIH), told Healthline.

However, Hall said researchers observed that the ultra-processed diet increased calorie intake by about 500 calories per day.

“This was a surprise,” Hall said.

He said the consumption of ultra-processed foods has been associated with obesity and poor health in observational studies, but there’s never been a randomized controlled trial testing whether processed foods actually cause overeating or weight gain.

“Most nutrition studies focus on the nutrient content of foods, so I was skeptical about whether the processing of foods has any importance apart from their nutrient content,” Hall said.

“So we thought it was important to conduct the first [randomized controlled trial] where subjects were exposed to ultra-processed diets versus unprocessed diets matched for a variety of nutrients to see if ultra-processed foods caused overeating and weight gain.”

In undertaking the research, Hall and his team enlisted 20 healthy volunteers.

They were admitted to the NIH’s Metabolic Clinical Research Unit for one month.

The participants were allocated either an ultra-processed diet or unprocessed diet for two weeks, then switched.

They ate three meals a day and were given bottled water and snacks that were either ultra-processed or unprocessed. Participants could eat as much as they wanted and the quantities of all that they ate were measured.

The NOVA food classification system, which categorizes foods how much they’ve been processed, was used by the researchers to choose foods for the participants.

On the ultra-processed diet, participants were given Honey Nut Cheerios, whole milk with added fiber, and a blueberry muffin with margarine for breakfast.

The participants who ate an unprocessed diet were given a parfait with strawberries, banana, walnuts, salt, olive oil, Greek yogurt, and apple slices with a squeeze of lemon.

After two weeks eating an ultra-processed diet, participants gained an average of two pounds. Those on the unprocessed diet had an average weight loss of two pounds.

Dana Hunnes, PhD, a senior dietitian at the University of California Los Angeles Medical Center, said the research results aren’t surprising.

“Ultra-processed diets tend to have foods in them that are more calorically dense and with less water content, making each individual food less satiating and satisfying,” she told Healthline.

“To achieve the same satiation in the stomach — or sense of fullness — which may have more to do with volume than calorie intake, it would make sense that more of the calorically dense foods would be eaten (and therefore more calories) than when eating an unprocessed diet.”

The researchers hypothesized a few reasons why the participants on an ultra-processed diet ate more food.

One reason is the speed they ate at.

“People ate the ultra-processed food faster, and this may have contributed to overeating,” Hall said.

Kristin Kirkpatrick, MS, a licensed, registered dietitian and manager of wellness nutrition services at the Cleveland Clinic Wellness Institute in Ohio, says people need to be mindful of how quickly they eat their food.

“Many studies cite chewing longer and mindfulness as effective tactics for weight loss,” she told Healthline. “Eating fast obviously means eating more — more food, more calories, and too much fuel at the end of the day that can’t be burned off, which results in abundant energy still there before you go to bed.”

Researchers acknowledge that a notable limitation to the study was that all food given to participants was prepared by someone else. This doesn’t consider convenience or cost of foods eaten, which are common reasons a person may choose something ultra-processed.

“Processed food is quick, and in these busy times people often go for fast and easy,” Lauri Wright, PhD, an assistant professor in public health at the University of South Florida, told Healthline.

“Ultra-processed foods often have high amounts of sugar, sodium, and fat. Examples of these foods to avoid include chips, hot dogs, instant soups, soft drinks, and packaged baked goods,” she said.

Not all processed foods are bad.

Wright says some minimally processed foods can be helpful for busy people.

“Any time we cook, bake, or prepare food, we’re processing food,” she said. “Minimally processed food can actually help you eat more nutrient-dense foods.

Milk and juices are sometimes fortified with calcium and vitamin D, and breakfast cereals may have added fiber. Canned fruit is a good option when fresh fruit isn’t available.

Some minimally processed food such as pre-cut vegetables and pre-washed spinach are quality convenience foods for busy people.”

If you want to minimize your intake of processed food, aim to do more food prep and cooking at home. “Base your meals on whole foods, including vegetables, beans, and whole grains,” Wright said. “Eating processed food in moderation is fine, but avoid those with a lot of added sugar, fat, and sodium.”


You’re Eating More Processed Food Than You Think

You’re Eating More Processed Food Than You Think

When you’re looking to tweak your diet to make it healthier, one of the first pieces of advice you’re ly to come across is to cut down on the amount of processed food you eat. Because that usually results in a reduction in fat, sugar and salt consumption, it’s a savvy move – but processed foods cannot all be tarred with the same brush.

We spoke to dietitian Dimple Thakrar of the British Dietetic Association ( for all the info you need on processed foods.

What is a processed food?

When you think of processing it’s natural for your mind to turn to ready meals or chicken nuggets, but it’s a term that covers a far wider range of foods than you might imagine.

“Any food that has been altered from its natural state, either with other substances sugar, salt or chemical preservatives or by physical means freezing, heating, canning or blending is technically processed,” says Thakrar.

That means there’s a lot of food that you might be eating regularly without realising it’s processed, milk, bread, yogurt, frozen veg and smoothies. You’ll notice that many of those foods are not unhealthy, despite the fact that many believe they should avoid processed foods at all costs.

“Not all processed foods are harmful,” says Thakrar. “Some processes are necessary to make the product safe, pasteurisation of milk and cheese.”

What should you watch out for in processed foods?

While processed foods shouldn't be dismissed as unhealthy hand, it’s still worth opting for food in its natural state if possible, says Thakrar.

“Avoid unnecessary processing or over-processing, so choose fruit in its natural form over fruit smoothies, or grapes over raisins.”

It’s also important to consider exactly what has been added to a food when it’s been processed.

“Check if too much salt or sugar has been added using the traffic light system on food labelling, and opt for the green coloured labels,” says Thakrar.

“Another way of assessing this is by checking the ingredient list. Ingredient lists are written in order of quantity, so if sugar, salt and/or chemical preservatives appear within the top five ingredients then it is ly that food is not going to be the healthiest option.”

Should you avoid processed meats?

Bacon, sausages, ham and a whole host of other delicious things have all been linked to an increased risk of cancer – but as long as you don’t go overboard with the amount of processed meat you eat, they can stay on the menu.

“They [processed meats] are not unhealthy if eaten in moderation and as part of a healthy diet. The issue occurs if you eat too much because this can lead to overconsumption of salt and fats,” says Thakrar.

“The Department of Health recommends that if you currently eat more than 90g (cooked weight) of red and processed meat a day, you should cut down to 70g a day. This is equivalent to two or three rashers of bacon, or a little over two slices of roast lamb, beef or pork, each about the size of half a slice of bread.”


Do You Eat More Processed Food Than You Think?

You’re Eating More Processed Food Than You Think

How much junk food – highly processed food that is convenient but unhealthy – do you eat each day? Probably more than you think. No, I’m not judging you.

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It is so easy to slip into eating the “Standard American Diet” and I completely understand.

If you’re the average North American, almost 60% of your calories are coming from extremely processed food loaded with excess sugar, salt, and fat, according to a recent study by Tufts University and the University of Sao Paulo.

Most experts agree that an occasional treat causes little harm in an otherwise balanced diet, but these numbers are concerning. Large amounts of processed food can lead to weight gain, as well as increased risk for diabetes, heart disease, and other conditions.

Confession time here – when I’m not feeling well, it is far too easy to say “You’re going in town to do banking? Pick up something for supper.

” And of course anything “picked up” for supper is going to be overly processed with ingredients we just don’t want to be eating.

The lack of good food doesn’t help anyone in the house feel better, and then the minor bug just drags on longer than it should.


It is not that hard to make serious changes to your diet. Follow these guidelines for making smarter choices about what you eat and drink, and decrease the amount of processed food in your diet.

Switch to water

Soda consumption is declining, but sugary drinks are still the single largest source of calories for the average American. Drink water with a slice of lime or brew a cup of tea. I have talked elsewhere about why you need to drink more water and ways to get more into you.

Rethink your coffee

How much sugar are you putting in your coffee or tea?

Cut the amount in half each week.

After a while, you probably won’t even notice the difference.

For most of my adult life, I’ve taken my coffee very sweet. One lump or two? Oh, how about three … maybe four?

About six months ago, I started slowly decreasing and now I take it with one scant teaspoon of sugar in an eight ounce mug. Recently, I took a sip of EJ’s very sweet coffee (the traditional Canadian “double double”) and immediately handed it back. Too sweet!!!

Read your cereal box

A lot of breakfast cereals don’t live up to their healthy names.

Don’t start your day, or your children’s day, with a huge dose of highly processed food.

Check the labels for how much added sugar they contain. You might find that the ones you all contain terribly high levels of sugar, making them dessert more than breakfast!

Making your own granola ahead of time, or cooking up oatmeal, takes very little extra work and will save you a lot of money as a nice bonus. You can save a lot of time by making apple cinnamon overnight oats in your slow cooker!

If you have just a little more time, enjoy a high protein breakfast avocado baked eggs – delicious and filling.

Serve fruit

You can satisfy your sweet tooth without candy and cookies. Snack on apples and peanut butter. Enjoy figs and cheese for dessert. With a dehydrator, you can even make homemade fruit rollups and other dried snacks.

Plan ahead

It’s easier to resist sweets if you’re already full.

Eat balanced meals, and carry nutritious snacks around with you. Decide in advance which treats you enjoy most so you can save up your sugar calories for something you really love – a nice piece of dark chocolate.

Go cold turkey

Maybe you want to give up refined sugar entirely. Experts say the cravings pass in about 72 hours, so you’ll be in good shape if you can outlast the temporary discomfort. (Full disclosure here – I’ve tried and can’t do it!)

Shop the perimeter

The inner aisles of most supermarkets are full of chips, frozen pizzas, and all of the other pre-packaged convenience foods that, while often tasty, are far less nutritious (and more expensive!).

Fill your cart with produce and low-fat dairy and meat products instead.

Skip diet foods

Beware of low-fat and no-fat versions of junk foods. They often add more sugar and salt to restore the flavor. And that goes for many of the gluten-free products, too! You’d be shocked at some of the misleading claims – be sure to know about health foods you should avoid.

Learn new recipes

Get a copy of A Cabin Full of Food and learn the recipes that let Grandma put unprocessed food on the table every day.  How do I know it’s great? Well, I wrote it. But if you don’t believe me, check out the Amazon reviews and let those who use the cookbook convince you.

Experiment more

If you’ve been eating instant macaroni and cheese for years, you may not realize all the alternatives available.

Sample a wholesome new food each week quinoa or tempeh. If you’re not that adventurous, try using barley instead of white rice for a few meals. It will fill you up more and keep you full longer.

Fill your fridge, freezer, and pantry

Not just that, but make use of stackable meal-planning dishes that let you make a week’s worth of food for the fridge.

Stock your pantry with home-canned jars of soup and chili, ready for quick meals and take note of the recipes that you can make no matter how tired and sore you are. Spaghetti, for example, requires nothing more than pre-made spaghetti sauce (can your own so you know what’s in it!) and a box of pasta.

Watch portion sizes

Most of us underestimate the portion size on our pasta and other starchy or sweet foods – “another scoop of that fettucine alfredo, please” – and underestimate the portion size on our vegetables – “oh, I can’t eat that much salad!”

Find out what you should be eating and measure what you really are taking in to see the difference.

Did you know that a serving of Oreo cookies is … just two little cookies? Wouldn’t it be better to have a larger – and healthier – homemade cookie?

Focus on vegetables and fruit

Most produce is high in nutrients and low in calories, so aim for at least 5 servings a day. And don’t drink your produce! Eating whole fruit rather than juice will provide more fiber and fewer calories.

Be selective

You may be surprised by how processed or unprocessed some foods really are. Shop carefully, and stay informed. For example, if you eat soy products, realize that frozen edamame typically has far more natural ingredients than frozen soy burgers.

What you eat most of the time has a big impact on your overall health and well-being. Make whole foods that are low in processed sugar the mainstay of your diet.

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