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THURSDAY, Jan. 9, 2020 (HealthDay News) -- The convenience and lower cost of processed foods is hard to resist. But ready-to-eat meals and snacks are making Americans obese and unhealthy, a new study suggests.
As more people eat cheaper processed foods, they are getting fatter, said researcher Leigh Frame, from George Washington School of Medicine and Health Sciences, in Washington, D.C.
Frame and a colleague analyzed food trends in the United States, looking beyond calories to the impact of processing.
"When comparing the U.S. diet to the diet of those who live in 'blue zones' -- areas with populations living to age 100 without chronic disease -- the differences are stark," she said in a university news release.
"Many of the food trends we reviewed are tied directly to a fast-paced U.S. lifestyle that contributes to the obesity epidemic we are now facing," added Frame, executive director of the university's Office of Integrative Medicine and Health.
The foods most tied to weight gain? They include potato chips, sugar-sweetened beverages, sweets and desserts, refined grains, red meats and processed meats, the researchers said. Lower weight gain and weight loss are associated with whole grains, fruits and vegetables.
Americans are getting too little fiber, and more food additives like emulsifiers and gums, the researchers determined.
In animal studies, emulsifiers in processed foods have been shown to alter the microbiome (the community of microorganisms in the body), increase blood sugar, cause excessive hunger, increase weight and damage the liver, the study authors said.
Human trials have found that ultra-processed foods decrease the feeling of fullness, cause you to eat faster, worsen inflammation and cholesterol, and lead to weight gain, the team added.
On the other hand, people who eat less meat and more high-fiber and minimally processed foods suffer from fewer chronic diseases and obesity. They also tend to live healthier longer, investigators have found.
"Rather than solely treating the symptoms of obesity and related diseases with medication, we need to include efforts to use food as medicine," Frame said.
Chronic disease in older age is heavily influenced by lifestyle and diet, she explained.
"Decreasing obesity and chronic disease in the U.S. will require limiting processed foods and increasing intake of whole vegetables, legumes, nuts, fruits and water," Frame said. "Health care providers must also emphasize lifestyle medicine, moving beyond 'a pill for an ill.'"
The report was published recently in the journal Current Treatment Options in Gastroenterology.
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