Healthy dinner with salmon, salad, grapes and yogurt
They Enjoyed the Real-Food Buffet, Ate Until Satisfied, Lost Two Pounds

I was so excited to see this study published recently, because it fits in so well with my own experience, and nothing like it had been done before in such a well-controlled manner.

Delicious minimally processed foods

Most of us suspect that industrial/processed/junk foods lead to unhealthy weight gain. One proposed reason is that they tend to contain more sugar and fat than “natural” foods. The researchers in this study wanted to test that theory, and they designed a very clever and scientifically rigorous experiment.

They created two menu plans, one built around typical packaged/processed foods (like breakfast cereal and macaroni and cheese) and the other featuring more natural, minimally processed foods. However, the two plans were carefully matched to have equal proportions of fat, carbohydrates, protein and fiber.

Then they convinced 20 randomly selected adults to move into a National Institutes of Health laboratory for a month (!), eating all of their food there (and exercising 20 minutes three times a day on a stationary bike). The participants were split into two groups: one group ate the processed food plan for two weeks, while the other group ate the minimally processed foods. Then the two groups were switched and ate the opposite diet for two weeks.

This excellent summary gives more details about how it worked:

All participants received three daily meals and were free to eat as much or as little as desired within 1 hour. Meals were designed to be well matched across diets for total calories, energy density, macronutrients, fiber, sugars, and sodium, but differed widely in the percentage of calories derived from ultra-processed vs unprocessed foods.

As an example, an ultra-processed breakfast might consist of a bagel with cream cheese and turkey bacon, whereas the minimally processed breakfast was oatmeal with bananas, walnuts, and skim milk.

Becky McCall, Highly Processed Food Intake Leads to Overeating and Weight Gain, Medscape Medical News, May 20, 2019
Protein and vegetables

So what happened? Fascinating and (I think) very encouraging things:

Both groups ate all they wanted of the foods offered to them, and they both reported enjoying the food and feeling satisfied.
When people ate as much highly processed food as they wanted, they consumed about 500 more calories per day than the whole-foods group, and they also ate more rapidly.
The processed food group gained about 2 pounds in two weeks, while the whole-foods group lost about 2 pounds (without trying!).
When the groups were switched to the other kind of food, they had the same results of gaining or losing 2 pounds. Clearly it wasn’t the people, it was the food!

Most headlines about the study emphasized the weight gain with processed foods. But the exciting part for me was the seemingly automatic fat loss among the participants eating minimally processed foods.

When I resolved to get healthier, inspired by the book Younger Next Year, I decided to eat only “real food.” Actually, as my 2014 food diary shows, I did make plenty of room for exceptions (something like the famous 80%-20% principle). But I didn’t limit the quantity of whole, natural foods; I enjoyed them until I was satisfied — and I consistently lost about a pound of excess body fat, week after week, while feeling healthier and more energetic.

“Mean Green” ingredients ready for my juicer (on the bottom left is fresh turmeric as well as ginger, extra bonus)

News headlines about this study referred to “ultra-processed foods,” so you might imagine a menu packed with Cheese Whiz, Cool Whip and Lucky Charms (yuck! ?). No, it was basically typical American food, such as Cheerios, muffins, quesadillas and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. The kinds of foods I used to eat, and then (mostly) stopped.

At this link, you can see all of the actual menus, complete with color photos of the meals!

Here’s a sample lunch menu for the processed-food group: Hot dog on bun with ketchup and yellow mustard, baked potato chips, cranberry juice with NutriSource fiber, blueberry yogurt with NutriSource fiber (you can see they were struggling a bit to match the diets on fiber content!).

And here’s an unprocessed lunch: Spinach salad with chicken breast; apple slices; bulgur; sunflower seeds and grapes; vinaigrette made with olive oil, fresh squeezed lemon juice, apple cider vinegar, ground mustard seed, black pepper and salt (yes, yes, yes!).

If you’re interested, I hope you’ll take the time to compare the photos of the two types of meals. The beautiful unprocessed meals, featuring a rainbow of fruits and vegetables, start on page 25. There’s no need to feel deprived on that kind of “diet” — and the study participants didn’t!

Both groups enjoyed their food, and they ate all they wanted. The researchers found no significant differences in “pleasantness” or “familiarity” between the two diets. Likewise, scores for “hunger, fullness, satisfaction and capacity to eat” were similar. The people eating the unprocessed food felt full and satisfied. And they lost excess body fat.

That’s what happened to me too. And I didn’t even have to be 100% strict, as I can see when I review my 2014 food diary. I regularly used commercial protein shakes as meal replacements or boosters (my favorite was CalNaturale ). At events, I’d eat half a piece of cake or a bite of a donut. I enjoyed a small glass of beer or wine on occasion. But day after day, I mainly focused on enjoying all I wanted of a generous rainbow of vegetables, plenty of fruit, and meat, fish, nuts and seeds.

From my 2014 food diary. I ate on the road at McDonald’s and loaded up on fruits and vegetables at the Wood Grill buffet (visiting my son at college). Rose wine sample and “1 inch of beer” the day before. Down to 139 pounds on August 10, from 173 in January. Coffee and Zumba kept my energy up 🙂

What I rigorously cut out were flour-based foods, which I realized are often only “carriers” (the bun carrying the hamburger, the pasta carrying the pesto, the pita chips carrying the hummus). Hence the lettuce wraps, the McDonald’s jalapeno double with no bun, and the yummy “not-chos” pictured below:

So delicious, especially with poblano peppers; I’m never going back to chips!

The question remains: if it wasn’t excess sugar and fat, why did the study participants eat more of the processed foods and gain weight? The main difference found by the researchers was that the people consuming highly processed food consistently ate it faster (about 17 calories more per minute). The highly processed food just seemed to go down more easily.

This points to eating slowly, and mindful eating, as an important strategy to avoid taking in more calories than our bodies need. I’ve never worked on this myself … hmm, time to start!

But of course feeding our bodies is not just about calories (or calories per minute). There are many other great reasons to nourish ourselves with a wide variety of the unprocessed whole foods our bodies evolved to enjoy. Foods from a farm (not a factory) are full of natural substances that researchers are just starting to understand: nutrients that reduce inflammation, prevent cancer, cultivate a healthy microbiome, and SO much more. Losing excess body fat is just a wonderful bonus!

Thanks for reading this! If you’re wondering how to include more delicious whole foods in your life and feel the benefits, I’m happy to help! Schedule a totally free Midlife Tune-Up Zoom call (real coaching, not a sales call!) with me here. And you might enjoy my other posts about easy ways to enjoy more “real food”: Real Food on the Road (a challenge, but I’m up for it!), and my two posts on easy ways to batch-cook vegetables for the whole week (that’s what I do!): the first batch of veggies and the second one with all different vegetables. I hope you’ll find new ideas that you love!

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