Please note this Health Tip will not tell you how to lose weight. If you want to browse the offerings on that topic, go to amazon and search for diet books. Once our largest bookstore attempted to track the numbers, but when they surpassed 95,000 it apparently gave up and now tell us that the number is “over 60,000.”
If we publish this many diet books, we can safely assume the answer to our weight problems must lie elsewhere.
An interesting statistic partially explains our predisposition to weight gain. We purchase nearly 10% of our groceries from retailers that are not in the grocery business at all. The largest is CVS (3.8% of all food purchased), followed by Walgreens (2.7%) and places like Family Dollar and Dollar General. These numbers are far larger than Whole Foods (1.4%) and Trader Joes (1.0%).
You might respond that there are many more Walgreens stores than TJs, but think for a moment about store locations. The drugstore chains are everywhere, covering all income brackets, lower and upper alike. The dollar store chains (opening at the rate of three per day) are positioned mainly in lower income urban and rural areas.
Except for a tiny handful of actual grocery store chains opening outlets in low-income neighborhoods/regions of the country, poorer families, often with no transportation and situated in a food desert, are compelled to buy a lot of their “food” at stores like CVS or Dollar General. And herein lies the problem.
Imagine you have no car, you’re pressed for time, and you have to get all your groceries for the next few days at your nearest Walgreens or Dollar General. It’s as distasteful as it sounds. What you’ll quickly see is that you’re stuck with choosing from frozen and long shelf life processed foods. Plus maybe a banana wrapped in plastic and sold individually.
Plenty of boxed macaroni and cheese, sugary cereal, cans of soups and chili, boxes of donuts, and bags of candy and salty snacks. Foods like these will satisfy everyone’s hunger momentarily, but as you must know by now are not actual food, being merely caloric concentrates of salt, sugar, and fat along with a chemical swill to enhance color, prevent rot, and fool your taste buds into a nonstop craving for more.
These are ultra-processed foods, a category that also includes soft drinks, ramen and other instant soups, reconstituted meat nuggets, and thousands of fast-food items from restaurant outlets and gas stations sprinkled across the US as thickly as a blanket of Oscar Mayer Sandwich Spread.
The exact definition of ultra-processed is this: “Formulations of mostly cheap industrial sources of dietary energy and nutrients plus additives, using a series of processes and containing minimal whole foods.”
Ultra-processed vs processed
Ultra-processed food is different from processed food. Processed means changing a food before it’s sold, including pasteurizing milk, canning vegetables, mashing peanuts into peanut butter, or putting salmon into a can, but without adding a lot of ingredients (always read labels before buying). It also doesn’t change the food’s nutritional value.
Ultra-processed foods include vast amounts of preservatives, additives, and artificial colors and flavors.
Ultra-processed foods have three minimal advantages:
–They will keep you from starving to death.
–They’re generally inexpensive.
–They’re virtually spoilage-proof. Your fresh salmon and asparagus will go bad within the week. A box of cookies will last for months if not years.
An important study, conducted by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), explored just what ultra-processed foods do to the human body and, by extension, how not to gain weight. The study was published in the journal Cell Metabolism just last month.
The ultra-processed study
Using the NIH’s residential Clinical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, researchers recruited (and paid) twenty 30-ish adults whose weights had been stable.
For the first two weeks (remember, living on-site so their intake was strictly controlled), ten of the 20 ate nothing but ultra-processed foods, breakfasts of Egg McMuffins, sugary cereals, lunch of Arby’s, and dinners, well, you can imagine. The other ten ate nothing but meals made completely of whole foods. Eggs, fruit, yogurt, salads, protein, and vegetables.
During the second two weeks, everyone switched, ultra-processed eaters to whole foods and vice versa. Over the entire four weeks, everyone had access to an exercise area and was instructed to exercise a certain number of minutes each day.
Note this extremely important point: Although everyone’s daily calorie allowance was identical and capped at 3,900 calories per day, participants could choose to eat as little or as much (up to the calorie limit) of anything they were served.
The result: every time one or the other group was on the ultra-processed segment, they ate many more calories (more carbs and fats, less protein) than when they were eating the whole foods way. Ultra-processed eaters cleaned their plates, so to speak. Whole food eaters were satiated earlier and left food behind.
This isn’t surprising when you realize that ultra-processed foods are doctored by their manufacturers to literally increase your hunger. Their low fiber content suppresses the gut-brain connection that tells you to stop eating. Also, because these foods are high in sugar, the ultra-processed group experienced low blood sugar (hypoglycemia) an hour or so after eating, which made them hungry again.
Finally, and most important, within just two weeks everyone eating ultra-processed foods gained weight, while those on the whole-food segment either lost weight or remained stable.
Not one person eating whole foods gained weight.
On a definitely discouraging note, the ultra-processed food cost for the week was $106, while unprocessed was $151.
The take-home message? Agonize all you want over your diet choice: low-carb, paleo, keto, high protein, low fat, high fat, plant-based, whole 30, Mediterranean, interval, Atkins, whatever. Each and every one will work if you never (ever) touch ultra-processed food again.
If you’re currently overweight, you likely got there after you started having a scone at Starbucks with your coffee or your lunch at Wendy’s or a frozen dinner in the evening because you were too tired to cook.
—Buy whole foods (fruit, veggies, yogurt with no additives, clean protein) at your local farmer market or from the periphery of the grocery. Avoid the aisles except for canned salmon and condiments like tamari (wheat-free soy sauce) that will make your home-prepped meals sing.
—Prepare most of your food at home from actual whole-food ingredients. That means making and taking your lunch to work. And having friends over for a potluck.
—No fast foods or convenience foods, ever.
—Eating out is almost always loaded with processed foods. Make careful choices.
—Use CVS for your birth control pills, not your dinner fixings.
If you’re unsure what to cook, check out Mark Bittman’s online recipe archives, filled with straightforward, nourishing recipes using whole foods. If you don’t know where to start, try his Easy Chicken Curry. If you prefer a cookbook or app, he’s published many, including the appropriately titled How To Cook Everything.
David Edelberg, MD