Beyond calories: how ultra-processed foods lead to weight gain

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For years, the nutritional narrative has been quite clear: weight gain is a function of calories in versus calories out.

However, a groundbreaking study from the US National Institute of Health (NIH) reveals a far more complex story when it comes to ultra-processed foods.

The NIH Study: Calories and Beyond

In a randomized controlled trial (RCT) involving 20 adults, participants were either assigned to a diet of ultra-processed foods or unprocessed foods.

Each group switched diets after two weeks. Surprisingly, participants consumed an extra 500 calories per day while on the ultra-processed diet—even though both diets were equally palatable to them.

The Hidden Dangers: Speed and Satiety

So, what’s happening here? One key finding is the speed at which participants consumed ultra-processed meals. Eating more quickly led to greater calorie intake before the body’s fullness signals could kick in.

Ultra-processed foods, generally low in fiber due to their manufacturing process, allow for rapid consumption, bypassing the natural satiety mechanisms.

The Role of Dietary Fiber

The NIH researchers tried to level the playing field by adding fiber supplements to the ultra-processed food. However, it’s not just about the presence of fiber; it’s about how the fiber is incorporated into the food matrix.

In unprocessed foods, fiber is part of the natural structure, forcing us to eat slower and allowing time for our body to signal that it’s full.

A Cultural Perspective: The French Way

In countries like France, where the tradition of seated mealtimes and a series of small courses is more common, people often consume fewer calories and enjoy a more leisurely eating experience.

Could this be a hidden antidote to the calorie-laden quick meals that ultra-processed foods offer?

The Takeaway: It’s Not Just About Calories

While calorie content is important, this study suggests that the structure of the food we eat—and how it influences our eating speed and satiety—is equally vital.

Ultra-processed foods may be convenient, but their altered food structure can override our body’s natural mechanisms to regulate food intake.

In a world where ultra-processed foods are increasingly becoming the norm, it’s crucial to be aware of the nuanced factors that contribute to their high calorie consumption rates, beyond just taste and convenience.

It seems the age-old advice to “slow down and enjoy your food” might actually be scientifically sound advice for weight management.

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