Eating more ultra-processed foods instead of minimally-processed foods can lead to weight gain, higher risks of cancer, and an early death, said researchers in Maryland.

A new study conducted by a team of experts from the National Institutes of Health carefully examined the effects of consuming more ultra-processed foods compared to minimally processed foods.

Previous studies that investigated how ultra-processed foods can drive weight gain have relied on the ability of participants to recall the food they ate, which is often difficult for most people.

By closely following the diet of participants, the new study helped researchers distinguish the effects of both types of food as it happened in real-time.

Here's How Ultra-Processed Foods Can Drive Weight Gain

For the study, researchers provided a group of 10 women and 10 men with daily meals, under the condition that participants live at the NIH Clinical Center in Bethesda, Maryland for 28 days.

During the first 14 days, half of the participants ate what was called an "ultra-processed diet," which consisted of foods such as chicken salad with canned chicken, turkey bacon, sweetened Greek yogurt, baked potato chips, and bagels with cream cheese.

The other half of the group was given a minimally processed diet, which consisted of whole fruits and vegetables, meat and fish, nuts, oatmeal, and eggs. After 14 days, the participants switched diets.

The results were that people who ate processed foods gained 2 pounds while those who ate minimally processed food lost 2 pounds.

The weight gain is not solely due to salt, calories or fat contained in the diets. Researchers explained that both diets contained the same amount of sugar, fat, calories, fiber, protein, and carbohydrates, but it all depended on whoever consumed more fat and carbohydrates and ate more quickly.

"We found people over-ate on average more than 500 calories a day on the ultra-processed diet. They gained weight and gained body fat," said Kevin Hall, the study's lead author.

Blood tests conducted on the participants also revealed that those who ate minimally processed foods had traces of a hormone called PYY, which made people feel full, and less of a hormone called ghrelin, which stimulated appetite.

Meanwhile, the findings of the new study have been issued in the journal Cell Metabolism.

Ultra-Processed Foods Are Linked To Cancer Risks And Premature Death

Past studies have shown that consuming ultra-processed foods have been linked to a higher risk of developing cancer.

Researchers from Paris found that increasing the consumption of ultra-processed foods by 10 percent actually increased the number of cancer cases by 12 percent. They examined food such as ultra-processed fats and sauces as well as sugary drinks.

Another study in France investigated the effects of ultra-processed foods among 44,551 participants whose average age was 57 years old. In the study, experts found that ultra-processed food accounted for more than 29 percent of total calories consumed by participants.

During the study, approximately 602 deaths were reported. Of this number, 219 cases were cancer-related deaths while 34 cases were cardiovascular-related.

What Are Healthier Alternatives To Ultra-Processed Foods?

People have shown that it is possible to transition away from ultra-processed foods. Lisa Leake from Charlotte completely overhauled her family's diet in 2010 and eliminated ultra-processed food in their dinner table.

Leake, who wrote a book called "100 Days of Real Food on a Budget," said that days after changing their diet, she and her husband lost 5 pounds without trying, had more energy, and had higher levels of good cholesterol.

Some healthier alternatives to ultra-processed foods are cereals, sauces, bread, salad-dressings, and cheese. Leake said the best thing to do is to plan meals, read ingredient labels, and choose those that contain five or fewer ingredients.

Photo: Waldo Pepper | Flickr

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