Processed foods taste great!
There is no denying it.
They are engineered (that should be your first clue that something is wrong) to hit all the pleasure receptors in your brain. From their color, their texture, the sound they make when you bite into them, the smell when you open the package, and of course the taste.
At the same time, I am not going to tell you that consuming processed foods in isolation is going to cause you to gain weight. Ultimately calories are what matter and if you eat the same calories from whole foods as you do from processed foods you will get the same result, weight loss, weight gain, or maintenance. (Yes there are a number of other reasons why processed foods might not be the best choice for you but in this case I am going to stick to its impact on your weight.)
So what is the issue with processed foods and weight gain? Why not eat the delicious tasting, highly palatable processed foods if they have the same impact on your weight as whole foods?
A recent study illustrates the “why”nicely…
Researchers performed a cross-over study where the group of participants first ate a breakfast of 2 eggs with 2 slices of toast and 10g of margarine and then on a subsequent visit to the lab ate a breakfast of bran cereal with sugar, milk and orange juice. The macronutrient breakdown of the egg breakfast was 430 calories, 25g of protein, 23.5 grams of fat, 28 grams of carbohydrate, and 7 grams of fiber. The macronutrient breakdown of the cereal and milk breakfast was 427 calories, 11 grams of protein, 5 grams of fat, 73 grams of carbohydrate, and 11 grams of fiber.
In both the egg and cereal cases, participants waited 4 hours consuming nothing but water, before being allowed to eat as much pasta and tomato sauce they wanted for lunch.
The results showed that when participants ate the egg breakfast they consumed an average of 1079 calories at lunch and when they ate the cereal breakfast they consumed an average of 1262 calories at lunch.
Even more fascinating was the participants subjective feelings of hunger, satisfaction, fullness, and their desire to eat. Notice how at the beginning of each graph there is little difference in these subjective measures, but the longer time goes on hunger increases, satisfaction decreases, fullness decreases, and the desire to eat increases more intensely with the cereal breakfast when compared to the egg breakfast.
Now can you see the reason why consuming processed foods might lead to weight gain?
We are just hungrier after we eat them!
Why though? The calories of both the egg and cereal breakfasts were the same, so what gives? Why can’t our bodies figure out that we should not be hungry?
There are probably several reasons.
The most obvious one to start is the protein content of the meals. The egg breakfast had 25 grams of protein in it while the cereal breakfast had just 11 grams of protein. Protein is by far the most satisfying macronutrient we can consume. This is due to the fact that whole food proteins take a lot longer to digest so they sit in our stomach for a lot longer when compared to carbohydrates and fat. That means we feel more full.
Another theory why processed foods make us more hungry actually could have to do with the micronutrients in them, or better yet the lack of micronutrients in them. If the body is lacking essential macronutrients it could drive you to continue to eat in order to get them back up to proper levels . Whole eggs are one of the most nutrient dense foods you can eat (you need to eat the yolk!) . In contrast, a breakfast primarily composed of processed foods like cereal is going to be nutrient poor . The act of just adding some whole foods to your processed food breakfast could mitigate the changes of overeating due to the amount of micronutrients they provide.
Finally we have our little monkey brain that evolved with one goal in mind….turn food into babies. Our whole existence was based around passing on our DNA. We evolved for thousands of years where food was no guarantee. In addition, lots of the foods we did find or hunt were not terribly calorically dense. That meant when we found food, especially food that was calorically dense, we ate and ate a lot. We needed those calories to ensure we could pass on our genes for the survival of our species. That drive still lives within us, finding calorically dense very tasty foods (i.e. cereal with milk and sugar) sends signals to our brain to consume as much of that food as possible! Of course hunger and desire to eat will go up and fullness and feeling satisfied will go down!
What does this all boil down to?
Eating foods that we did not evolve consuming messes with our physiology in a way that it drives us to eat more. Whether it’s the satiating nature of the food, the lack of micronutrients in the food, or the fact that processed foods are highly palatable and calorically dense, or perhaps a combination of all of these factors, processed foods can lead to overeating and that will lead to fat gain.
Am I saying that you can never have ice cream again?
Am I saying calories don’t matter?
Not at all.
What I am trying to explain is that the more ancestrally misaligned the food is the more likely it will be that you have a stronger drive to eat more. If you have weight to lose, this is probably not a good thing for you. For the time being you probably want to eliminate processed foods completely while you work on reconnecting with your body’s true hunger signals and give it all the nutrition it needs to function properly. That will lead to your best chance of losing the body fat you want. If you chose to consume processed foods, you are likely going to have to use a lot of willpower to avoid overeating and your willpower is a very finite resource. Once it runs out, nothing will be there to stop you from overeating.
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