This small-scale study is the first randomized controlled trial — considered the gold standard in science — examining the effects of ultra-processed foods. They are defined as containing industrial ingredients, such as hydrogenated oils, high-fructose corn syrup, flavoring agents and emulsifiers.
During a one-month study, 20 healthy adult volunteers stayed at the National Institutes of Health Clinical Center, where all their meals were provided to them. For 14 days in turn, they were limited to each diet and told they could eat as much or as little as they liked.
The two versions of meals had the same amounts of calories, sugars, fiber, fat and carbohydrates. For example, the unprocessed breakfast might be oatmeal with bananas, walnuts and skim milk, while the other consisted of a bagel with cream cheese and turkey bacon.
Participants exercised about the same amount each day throughout the study.
On the ultra-processed diet, people ate faster while consuming about 500 calories more per day (by taking extra helpings) than they did while on the unprocessed diet; this increase in calories was due to higher quantities of carbohydrates and fat but not protein. As a result, they gained weight — on average, about 0.9 kilograms or 2 pounds. While on the diet of unprocessed foods, they lost an equal amount of weight.
The gender of the participants, the order of their diet assignment and their body mass index did not influence the varying calories each participant ate on each diet, according to the study authors.
The ultra-processed foods caused people to eat too many calories and gain weight, they concluded.
Engineered and heavily processed foods can be difficult to restrict due to reasons beyond just taste, the researchers noted. For example, the weekly cost of a 2,000-calorie per day diet of processed meals was estimated to be $106, versus $151 for the more natural meals.
It also takes more time to prepare less-processed foods, they said.
Fitzgerald recommends reviewing the back of a package of ready-made food. “Look at the ingredients list. Do you understand all those ingredients that go into your foods?” she asked. Buy only those products “with the least number of ingredients and with ingredients you understand.”
The study authors suggest that consumer confusion is another aspect of this problem.
“The perpetual diet wars between factions promoting low-carbohydrate, keto, paleo, high-protein, low-fat, plant-based, vegan, and a seemingly endless list of other diets have led to substantial public confusion and mistrust in nutrition science,” they wrote. “Limiting consumption of ultra-processed foods may be an effective strategy for obesity prevention and treatment.”