Processed Food Leads to Increased Calorie Consumption

Processed vs fresh healthy food

Processed Food Leads to Increased Calorie Consumption

Experts have long suspected that increased consumption of processed foods over the past 50 years has been a primary driver of the obesity epidemic. But because studying dietary habits is complicated, it's been difficult to make a direct connection.

This month, in the journal Cell Metabolism, researchers report results from the first randomized, controlled trial that directly compared differences in calorie consumption and weight gain between an ultra-processed and an unprocessed diet.

The team found that even when the two diets were matched for presented carbohydrates, fat, sugar, salt, and calories, people consumed more food and gained weight on an ultra-processed diet.

The Study

The study enrolled 20 healthy volunteers who were admitted to the NIH's Metabolic Clinical Research Unit for a month. Each participant was given either an ultra-processed diet or an unprocessed diet for two weeks, and then switched.

The participants were given three meals a day and had access to bottled water and either ultra-processed or unprocessed snacks throughout the day.

They were told they could eat as much as they wanted, and the quantities they consumed were measured.

The researchers used the NOVA food classification system, which categorizes foods according to the extent and purpose of processing, to develop the two diets.

For example, one ultra-processed breakfast consisted of Honey Nut Cheerios, whole milk with added fibre, a packaged blueberry muffin, and margarine.

An unprocessed one was a parfait made with plain Greek yogurt, strawberries, bananas, walnuts, salt, and olive oil and apple slices with fresh-squeezed lemon.

Participants reported that both diets tasted good and were satisfying, eliminating food preference as a factor.

The Results

During the two weeks that they were given ultra-processed food, the people in the study consumed an average of 508 calories more per day, compared with the days they got unprocessed food.

This graphical abstract shows how processed and unprocessed diets affected caloric intake and body weight in participants.
Image Credit: Hall et al./Cell Metabolism

Two weeks on the ultra-processed diet resulted in an average weight gain of two pounds, compared with an average weight loss of two pounds for the two weeks on the unprocessed diet.

These weight gains and losses are what you would expect from a calorie difference of 500 a day.

The volunteers gained body fat on the ultra-processed diet and lost it on the unprocessed diet.

The researchers have several hypotheses for why the people on the ultra-processed diet consumed more food.

When people were on the ultra-processed diet, they ate faster.

Lead author Kevin Hall, a section chief in the Laboratory of Biological Modelling at the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases within the National Institutes of Health, said:

"There may be something about the textural or sensory properties of the food that made them eat more quickly,"

"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. When this happens, you might easily overeat."

Another hypothesis is the role of solid foods versus beverages. To balance the dietary fibre and match the calorie density of the overall diets, drinks were added to the ultra-processed meals, such as juice and lemonade, that had added fibre.

But some researchers believe that beverages don't contribute to satiety the same way that solid foods do. So, the higher calorie density of the solid foods in the ultra-processed diet could have led people to increase their overall calorie intake.

A third factor could be that although the diets were matched as closely as possible, the unprocessed diet contained slightly more protein, about 15.6% of calories versus 14% for the ultra-processed diet.

"It could be that people ate more because they were trying to reach certain protein targets," Hall said.

Take a Free Trial Today

WLR can help you achieve your healthy weight not only by providing expert, research-backed information - but also by giving you the tools that turn research findings into practical, do-able tactics to help you lose weight for good. Try it free for 24 hours!

Take our FREE trial »


Ultra-Processed Diets Cause Excess Calorie Intake and Weight Gain: An Inpatient Randomized Controlled Trial of Ad Libitum Food Intake Cell Metabolism

If you enjoyed this article, try our newsletter. It's free.

Receive the latest on what works for weight loss straight to your inbox. We won't share your email address. Privacy policy