Industrial Inducement of Over Eating leads to weight gain
May 17, 2019 12:01 PM   Subscribe

Here is the study.

There's a lot of interesting stuff in it. The basic study design is that a group of 20 people are allowed to eat as much as they want of a non-processed diet for two weeks, and an ultra-processed diet for two weeks. Both diets have roughly the same amount of salt, sugar, fiber and macronutrients, because the researchers were testing the notion that salt, sugar, fat, or lack of fiber cause overconsumption. During the ultra-processed diet period, the subjects ate an additional 500 calories per day, and consequently gained weight. About half of the extra consumption can be explained by the protein leverage hypothesis.

What exactly is "ultra-processed food"? The study uses the NOVA food classification system.
posted by chrchr at 12:20 PM on May 17 [12 favorites]

perfect! I was *just* writing to ask for definition of “ultra-processed food”. The NOVA link is interesting and I’m thinking about trying out the app.
posted by lemon_icing at 12:32 PM on May 17

The diets may be comparable in macro-nutrient terms, but they seem worlds apart flavor-wise. (Link to the provided meals)

Unprocessed diet: Shrimp scampi with freshly squeezed lemon juice, balsamic/red wine/apple cider vinegarette, plenty of garlic, cumin, rosemary, parsley, basil, olive oil
Processed diet: Deli turkey, American cheese, margarine, Ketchup, Syrup, diet lemonade, sour cream. A steak burrito with just boxed steak, cheddar cheese & monterey jack, and canned beans, with canned salsa on the side (so no way there's any kick to it!)

Just...... bland. Palate fatigue maybe played a role here in their results? Like, ketchup was the prominent flavoring for a lot of blander potato dishes. (One of the processed meals featured tempura chicken nuggets, where a tempura dipping sauce would make sense and provide a different taste profile)

I know that back in college, when I relied on the dining hall for meals, I found that even though the food wasn't very good, I & many others were still overeating. We joked that we had to "fill our stomachs to make up for the lack of soul" (aka flavor).
posted by devrim at 12:44 PM on May 17 [6 favorites]

Ironic that this post came directly after the frozen snack food air fryer post...
posted by Greg_Ace at 12:50 PM on May 17

We joked that we had to "fill our stomachs to make up for the lack of soul" (aka flavor).

Yeah. I am just a layperson reading this and it is pure speculation, but it does seem like what's happening is the protein leveraging effect and some other, yet to be identified leveraging effect. The protein leveraging effect is that, because the ultra-processed foods have less protein, people eat more of them, as if adequate protein is necessary for satiety. A micronutrient or flavor leveraging effect makes some intuitive sense.

In short, because ultra-processed foods are not as nutritious, we feel the need to eat more of them.
posted by chrchr at 1:31 PM on May 17 [3 favorites]

I want to highlight a paragraph from the study. These are all things I have learned (and observed) make a huge difference in the amount of wellbeing I get from my diet:

While we attempted to match several nutritional parameters between the diets, the ultra-processed versus unprocessed meals differed substantially in the proportion of added to total sugar (∼54% versus 1%, respectively), insoluble to total fiber (∼77% versus 16%, respectively), saturated to total fat (∼34% versus 19%), and the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids (∼11:1 versus 5:1).

- Added sugar is going to be out of proportion with the nutrients needed to process it.
- Insoluble fiber is just as necessary as soluble, for different purposes. Perhaps most directly impactful for this study, insoluble fiber helps people feel full more quickly.
- I don’t have a succinct opinion on saturated fat, but it always comes up in health contexts. And what about trans fats?
- Omega 3:6 ratio is incredibly important. Generally, we get way too much omega 6, so it’s not surprising to see that the diet that caused weight gain was higher in omega 6.
posted by mantecol at 1:33 PM on May 17

Rachel Carmody, The Raw Truth About Cooking Great data based study on the role of food processing on caloric absorption.
posted by effluvia at 2:14 PM on May 17 [1 favorite]

Even though this is an experimental design I put this kind stuff in the interesting correlations folder until there are actual mechanism theories being tested and this kind of study won't produce those because there are too many different kinds of processing and foods involved to suss out any causal mechanisms. Also it is wildly underpowered.

Still interesting in terms of pointing a direction.
posted by srboisvert at 2:43 PM on May 17 [2 favorites]

The ratings for meal pleasantness and familiarity are similar for both diets, so they at least tried to control for eating for "soul".

The fact that fiber in the ultra-processed diet was mostly from large quantities of diet lemonade with fiber powder is a noticeable difference from the unprocessed diet, which doesn't have drinks pictured for most meals (assuming water was served?). There wasn't a signficant difference in fiber intake, which is impressive given that some of the ultra-processed meals were presented with up to five glasses of fiber lemonade. And the fasting glucose and insulin measurements aren't different between groups, so it's not the sweetener causing metabolic effects.
posted by momus_window at 3:33 PM on May 17

Remember Supersize Me?
posted by Oyéah at 5:26 PM on May 17

This matches my anecdotal life experience. I grew up on a highly processed diet most of the time, but married someone who grew up on whole/homemade foods. Over time we tilted our eating towards whole foods and homemade (mostly) and it’s become easier and easier to first lose weight and then maintain the loss. I also exercise more so who knows but it’s interesting to see this pilot study.

The story I’ve told my children is that it’s easier for our bodies to know when we’re full when we’re eating foods that aren’t processed. Now I feel like science is backing me up, woo hoo.
posted by warriorqueen at 5:57 PM on May 17 [4 favorites]

balsamic/red wine/apple cider vinegarette,

I don't get how that counts as "unprocessed" when it's been through so many preservative steps, when "jarred sauces" are identified as processed in the OP article.
posted by XMLicious at 9:57 PM on May 17 [1 favorite]

Why is honey considered processed? I mean, I guess it's not plant nor animal nor fungus, but it's in the category of "take it out of nature, remove the inedible bits it's attached to, and eat." Wait, milk is in category 1 (unprocessed) and that's probably what honey's closest to, in the sense of "how does this food connect to the natural world?"

Why is whey ultra-processed, like soda? (I guess because it's listed alongside ingredients, they must mean "dried/powdered whey used as an ingredient in other foods," rather than "Miss Muffet's meal" whey.)

The whole "4 categories" thing seems weird.
Cat 1, unprocessed: An apple. A glass of milk. An egg.
Cat 2, processed ingredients: Salt, sugar, olive oil, herbs. Maybe honey; it's unclear.
Cat 3, processed foods: cheese, bread, canned fish, fruit in syrup. Maybe honey. (It's listed in both.)
Cat 4, ultra-processed foods: Hot Pockets and beer.
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 11:51 PM on May 17

This is what caught my attention

For example, when the participants were eating the unprocessed diet, they had higher levels of an appetite-suppressing hormone called PYY, which is secreted by the gut, and lower levels of ghrelin, a hunger hormone, which might explain why they ate fewer calories. On the ultra-processed diet, these hormonal changes flipped, so participants had lower levels of the appetite-suppressing hormone and higher levels of the hunger hormone.
posted by hugbucket at 12:28 AM on May 18 [1 favorite]

I assume there's a line by line breakdown somewhere but looking at the PDF with breakdowns of the individual "presented meals" I'm just totally baffled at how they say they matched salt/sugar/macros/etc between the diets. Just looking at the always-available snacks, for example, we have

Unprocessed: apples and oranges, raisins, raw almonds and walnuts

Processed: pb&cheese crackers, baked potato chips, salted roasted peanuts, goldfish crackers, applesauce

It's literally impossible to match salt between those two sets of inputs unless they left out "(not shown: enormous salt lick)" from the unprocessed caption. Certainly if they're measuring salt in mg/kcal I just don't see how the math ever works out.

I'm going to keep reading and hopefully it's in the details somewhere but, am I missing something, or misunderstanding something about what I think they're claiming as the experimental design?

I guess at least in some of the cases it does make it clear how protein leveraging works -- like, okay, at this breakfast you could get all your protein needs met but you'd have to exclusively eat cream cheese, and apart from being generally ridiculous you're also way over on fat.
posted by range at 8:57 AM on May 18 [2 favorites]

Good information, but I too am puzzled by what’s included in the ultra processed category. Jarred sauce? Which is just tomatoes, salt, garlic and oregano? Or some other jarred sauce? And canned chicken and mayo? Canned chicken, I think, is just chicken and salt. Jarred mayo also has just a few ingredients...nonetheless this is instructive for those of us trying to lose weight. I might try making my own mayo and giving up my almond milk (a very long and incomprehensible ingredient list, I learned today!
posted by Ollie at 9:10 AM on May 18

This makes me think of something that I've been thinking about for awhile which is that modern processed foods aren't being recognized as food by the body. I think this plays into why there's such a thing with little kids being so picky and having so many food allergies all of a sudden. This would also be why the body doesn't feel sated with them. I wonder if it's because the processing results in a loss of the chemicals that provide the signals, that we recognize as flavor. Which is why even if the label says it's just chicken and salt, the processing of the chicken and the addition of the salt fucked with the arrangement of the chemicals so that when your body breaks them apart, whatever used to happen to the chain of chemical events that ended up with "Yes, this is food, we ate it, and now we have what we need and we can stop" doesn't happen. This is also why overeating becomes something like a psychological fetish, because it's just weird to feel full but not sated, and always unhappy because of the ever-increasing requirements and expectations that are never backed with support or resources or love or cooperation or optimism, so you keep doing the only thing you can think to do, which is just eat and eat and eat.
posted by bleep at 10:49 AM on May 18 [2 favorites]

Me eating breakfast this morning: “This donut is category 3”.
posted by chrchr at 12:23 PM on May 18

Jarred sauce? Which is just tomatoes, salt, garlic and oregano?

Jarred sauce is actually one of the first massive industrialized tastebud manipulation wins. It is full of high fructose corn syrup, processed oils and emulsifiers! See here where it gets touched on. And check out the story of Prego. Money quote: A mere half-cup of Prego Traditional, for instance, has the equivalent of more than two teaspoons of sugar, as much as two-plus Oreo cookies. It also delivers one-third of the sodium recommended for a majority of American adults for an entire day. In making these sauces, Campbell supplied the ingredients, including the salt, sugar and, for some versions, fat, while Moskowitz supplied the optimization.
posted by warriorqueen at 2:12 PM on May 18 [3 favorites]

Bleep, aren't kids picky about more natural foods and spices, flavors with more depth than palatability like spinach?
posted by Selena777 at 4:57 PM on May 18 [1 favorite]

I saw this and was really not satisfied with its methodology. If you look at the actual meals they served for instance, the amount of vegetables in what they call the unprocessed meals looks to be significantly higher than that of the processed meals. Heck the unprocessed diets have salads, the processed ones have...canned green beans. I don't think the processed/unprocessed distiction is a good way of putting it, maybe "foodstuffs with added salt sugar hfc" and foodstuffs without?
Also I have commercially jarred sauce in my pantry that has nothing but tomatoes, onions, olive oil, salt, garlic, basil, spices and calcium chloride (pickle crisp for you canners). It's really good and there's nothing in there I'd turn my nose up at in a healthy diet. Maybe it's the NOVA catagories that are the problem though.
posted by Rufous-headed Towhee heehee at 10:53 PM on May 18 [1 favorite]

I have no dog in your diet and I'm sure there are jarred sauces that are relatively fine, and I agree that in the context of a healthy diet, who cares.

But I am going to recommend that if you have an interest, you read up on the history of food manufacturing where it comes to processed food.

Like I said, I grew up on processed food, and my favourite jarred sauce tasted "right" to me where my own attempts at marinaras etc. tasted okay-but-so-so. (This was true of a lot of real food, basically, other than straight up fruits and vegetables.) As a result, my own diet kind of went like this: a few home cooked meals a week, some more whole, some processed, followed by "reward" or "comfort" meals (processed, or fast food, or restaurants) which tasted "good." For a long time I tried to address this through becoming a better cook, and developing more will power. Those things worked, but not that well.

But after I read some of the body of work on how processed foods both calibrate the sugar/salt/fat ratios in food, and gradually increase the sugar in food (because sugar is cheaper than more herbs or just about anything else that adds flavour to a preserved food, other than salt and fat), I gradually worked on eliminating my dependence on things like jarred sauces, loading up things with commercial dips and condiments by default, etc. Not overnight and we are not orthorexic. But gradually.

Over time this has made a big difference in my relationship to food, not because of the elimination of those foods per se but because my tastes have recalibrated. Other people who grew up differently, or have different body types, or are not in families prone to heart disease and stroke, may have totally different experiences. But for me it was absolutely a lightbulb moment that the processed stuff didn't taste good by accident, but by an industrial design created to make me eat and buy more of it.
posted by warriorqueen at 7:32 AM on May 19 [4 favorites]

My reading of the NOVA categories would put a jarred sauce with no preservatives, no added sugar, and no flavorings in category 3, which are processed foods, and not ultra-processed.
posted by chrchr at 7:43 AM on May 19

This does make me wonder about the stuff I eat - is jarred passatta then category 3? Tinned chickpeas? What about tinned beans in a tomato sauce (with no added sugar). Tomato puree? I mean, I generally cook my own meals rather than get ready meals but there's still a lot of stuff out of jars and tins involved.

What's funny is that with the new UK sugar tax, companies are pushing a whole bunch of lower sugar! products to the shelves, but instead of just reducing the sugar, they are replacing it with stevia which tastes totally gross to me. God forbid my ketchup or baked beans are just less sweet, which is especially annoying because I was already buying the low sugar stuff because I prefer the taste, and now can't because they've replaced them all with stevia versions.

I am one of those weirdos though who really doesn't like sweet in my savoury.
posted by stillnocturnal at 1:20 PM on May 21

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