Recent weight stats for the US are growing -- literally. According to the CDC, the obesity rate for US adults is 40% and 30% of American adults are overweight (1). If you’re at a normal weight or underweight, then you’re in the minority!
Leah A. Frame, PhD, MHS, a researcher at George Washington University, has researched several food trends and concluded that, as our food becomes more and more processed, the rate of obesity rises. She suggests that we prioritize nutrition over convenience for consumers and has published her views in Current Treatment Options in Gastroenterology (2).
According to Frame, if you look at the typical American diet and compare it to individuals that live in “blue zones”-- places where populations live to be 100 and do not have chronic illnesses -- the eating patterns are very different. The food trends she investigated are directly tied to a fast-paced way of living that exacerbates the obesity epidemic.
As the intake of highly-processed foods increases, the rate of obesity and chronic diseases also goes up. Foods including potato chips, sugar-sweetened drinks, sweets, desserts, red meat, refined grains, and processed meats are linked with weight gain, while consumption of fruit, whole grains, and vegetables are associated with lower weight gain or weight loss. A lack of dietary fiber plus the use of food additives such as emulsifiers and gums also raises the rate of obesity, especially in women.
In vitro trials using mice have found that the emulsifiers found in processed foods change the composition of the microbiome, raise fasting blood sugar, cause hyperphagia, increase weight gain and fat deposition, and initiate fatty liver disease. Recent human studies also link ultra-processed foods to reduced feelings of fullness (satiety), rapid meal eating rates, altered biochemical markers including cholesterol and inflammation and higher rates of weight gain. Populations with low meat intake and high intake of fiber and minimally-processed foods (i.e. blue zones), have much less chronic disease, obesity, and more disease-free longevity.
Instead of treating the consequences of obesity with medications, Frame advises using food as medicine. Chronic illnesses as people age are impacted by diet and lifestyle. In the US, in order to reduce obesity and chronic illness, we'll need reductions in processed foods and increased consumption of more vegetables, beans, nuts, fruit, and water. Frame suggests that health care providers encourage lifestyle medicine instead of a “pill for an ill.”
Dietitians can help their clients by suggesting the following swaps:
- Instead of chips and dip, try fresh veggies and hummus.
- Swap sweetened beverages and soda with flavored seltzer water.
- Include seasonal fruit in place of high-fat desserts.
- Snack on nuts or popcorn instead of pretzels or highly-processed crackers.
- Use rotisserie chicken in place of lunch meat.
- Make meatless tacos with black or pinto beans.
- Add fresh or frozen spinach to casseroles, soups or stews to boost veggie intake.
- Try garbanzo beans in place of croutons in salad.
- Swap refined grains for whole grains like 100% whole wheat bread or brown rice.
- Eat regularly scheduled meals instead of grazing on snacks all day.
Instead of choosing foods that are packed with fillers and empty calories, put more food in your food by eating foods that are loaded with nutrients and fiber.
By Lisa Andrews, MEd, RD, LD
- Janese Laster, Leigh A. Frame. Beyond the Calories—Is the Problem in the Processing? Current Treatment Options in Gastroenterology, 2019; 17 (4): 577 DOI: 10.1007/s11938-019-00246-1
Stephanie Ronco has been editing in a professional capacity for the past 10 years. In addition to her work as an editor, Ronco has also served as a ghostwriter and writing tutor. A voracious reader, Ronco loves watching language evolve and change. When she’s not delving into her latest project, Ronco can be found teaching acting classes, performing in community theater, or sailing with her husband.