One popular weight-loss strategy these days is to eat "clean," meaning that you cut out all processed foods. This is simple in theory, yes, but pretty tough in the real world. Fortunately, there may be an easier and more effective approach.
The truth is, some processed foods are good for you and can actually help you lose weight. They can make your life a whole lot easier, too, and save you loads of time in the kitchen.
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The catch here is that there's a difference between "minimally processed" and "ultra-processed" foods. The former includes foods like milk and nuts, while the latter includes key lime pie-flavored yogurt and hot dogs.
All of these foods have been processed in some way, but it's the degree to which they've been manipulated that varies. Ultra-processed food may include ingredients like artificial coloring, sweeteners or flavoring. They can be fried or include refined grains, they're lacking in nutritional value and/or they contain an excess amount of added sugars and sweeteners.
The reality is, almost 60 percent of our diet is made up of ultra-processed foods, according to the American Institute of Cancer Research — about 1,200 of our daily calories come from these typically unhealthy, nutrient-void foods. Minimally processed foods like bagged spinach and pistachios only make up about 30 percent — or 600 calories — of our daily intake.
Why does this matter? Research shows that when we eat ultra-processed foods, we tend to eat more, whether or not that's the intention. Put another way, we naturally eat less when we eat a more minimally processed diet.
A clinical study published May 2019 in Cell Metabolism evaluated the impact an ultra-processed diet has on weight compared to a minimally processed diet. The subjects were either fed an ultra-processed diet with foods like a breakfast sandwich, strawberry yogurt, diet lemonade and canned beef and bean chili or a minimally processed diet of foods like oatmeal with blueberries and almonds, salad with chicken breast and farro and beef tender roast with couscous and green beans.
The researchers found that after just two weeks, the ultra-processed group gained about two pounds while the minimally processed group lost about two pounds. The latter naturally ate about 500 fewer calories per day.
4 Processed Foods That Can Help You Lose Weight
Which minimally processed foods can help with weight loss? The goods news is, there are many options and they typically cost less than their more highly-processed counterparts.
1. Plain Yogurt
A cup of plain, low-fat yogurt has 150 calories and 13 grams of protein, according to the USDA. The same serving of plain Greek yogurt has almost twice the protein at 24 grams.
Protein is the most satiating nutrient, as explained in a July 2016 article published in Annual Review of Nutrition. Having adequate protein at a meal can help you feel fuller longer.
The key here is opting for plain yogurt, which means it's free of added sugars. Some, if not most, flavored yogurts are high in added sugars, which add calories without any nutritional benefits.
If you don't love the taste of plain yogurt, try adding berries, nuts and spices like cinnamon for a healthy flavor kick.
Minimally processed oats and other whole grains are a must-have when it comes to weight-loss diets. Whole grains are a good source of soluble fiber, which can help maintain your weight, as well as reduce the risk of diabetes, heart disease and certain cancers, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Oats specifically have a unique compound called beta-glucan. Research suggests that beta-glucan suppresses our appetite and increases our satiety, as reported in a paper published in Appetite in August 2018.
Don't skip out on nuts just because you can find them in the snack aisle alongside other unhealthy foods or because they're high in fat. Nuts like pistachios, walnuts and almonds can actually be an effective part of your weight-loss plan.
A study featured in BMJ Nutrition, Prevention & Health in September 2019 suggests that eating nuts may actually help prevent us from gaining weight as we age and decrease our overall risk of becoming obese. The results were found with eating just a half-serving of nuts (about half an ounce) per day.
4. Canned Beans
Buying dried beans may be less expensive, but canned beans will save you time (as in a couple of hours) and they're just as healthy. If you prefer dried beans, have at it — but if you're buying them to "eat cleaner," there's no need.
Beans, in general, are great for weight management because they're satiating and the fiber they contain slows digestion, which can stimulate the hormones in your gut, which tells your brain you've had enough to eat.
In fact, a May 2016 meta-analysis published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that after just six weeks, adding beans and other pulses to the diet resulted in a significant reduction in weight compared to diets without beans.
4 Processed Foods That Can Hinder Weight Loss
Skip these ultra-processed foods if you're trying to lose weight.
1. Sugary Beverages
Sugar-sweetened beverages are the number-one source of added sugar in American diets, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prenvetion. As you can imagine, this isn't great for your weight-loss goals or overall health.
Regularly drinking sugary beverages like soda, energy drinks, fruity drinks and coffee loaded with sugar is associated with weight gain and obesity, along with type 2 diabetes, heart disease, tooth decay, and kidney diseases.
Skip the sugar-laden sips and enjoy healthier drinks that can help you lose weight like green tea and sparkling water.
2. Fried Foods
Fried foods often start out as healthy foods like potatoes and chicken that end up taking an unhealthy turn. This form of cooking essentially negates all of the healthy attributes naturally found in these foods. This doesn't even take into consideration the often-sugary dips you use with fried foods like ketchup and barbecue sauce.
In fact, a February 2013 study published in Nutrition, Metabolism and Cardiovascular Disease found that eating fried foods more than four times a week significantly increases our risk for becoming overweight or obese compared to limiting fried food to less than twice a week.
3. Baked Goods
A muffin might sound healthier than a doughnut, but it's often higher in calories and can have just as much (if not more) added sugar. Baked goods are typically made with refined grains and added sugar, something you want to limit if you're trying to lose weight. Refined grains are low in fiber, a nutrient that helps to keep us feeling fuller longer.
A September 2019 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association looked at the diet of more than 40,000 adults and found that about 42 percent of our daily calories come from low-quality carbs like baked goods. The researchers noted that while this number may have improved over the years, it's still too high.
4. Salty Snacks
We snack a lot in the U.S., and salty snacks rank number one when it comes to what we're noshing on between meals, according to a May 2016 paper published in Advances in Nutrition.
Potato chips, crackers and pretzels are typically low in fiber and, depending on the snack, can be high in refined grains and/or loaded with fat and salt. These qualities, or the lack thereof, don't serve us when we're trying to lose weight.
Not all salty snacks are created equal, however. Nuts, for instance, are often found in the snack aisle, and when they're just roasted and salted they qualify as a good-for-you snack option and can help with weight management.
- American Institute of Cancer Research: "Processed Foods, Calories and Nutrients: Americans’ Alarming Diet"
- Cell Metabolism: "Ultra-Processed Diets Cause Excess Calorie Intake and Weight Gain: An Inpatient Randomized Controlled Trial of Ad Libitum Food Intake"
- MyFoodData: "Nutrition Comparison of Low-Fat Plain Greek Yogurt vs Low-Fat Yogurt"
- Annual Review of Nutrition: "The Macronutrients, Appetite, and Energy Intake"
- Appetite: "Effects of Oat B-glucan Consumption at Breakfast on Ad Libitum Eating, Appetite, Glycemia, Insulinemia and GLP-1 Concentrations in Healthy Subjects"
- Mayo Clinic: "Whole grains: "Hearty Options for a Healthy Diet"
- BMJ Nutrition, Prevention & Health: "Changes in Nut Consumption Influence Long-term Weight Change in US Men and Women"
- American Journal of Clinical Nutrition: "Effects of Dietary Pulse Consumption on Body Weight: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials"
- CDC: "Get the Facts: Sugar-Sweetened Beverages and Consumption"
- Nutrition, Metabolism and Cardiovascular Disease: "Consumption of Fried Foods and Weight Gain in a Mediterranean Cohort: The SUN Project"
- Journal of American Medical Association: "Trends in Dietary Carbohydrate, Protein, and Fat Intake and Diet Quality Among US Adults, 1999-2016"
- Advances in Nutrition: "What Is a Snack, Why Do We Snack, and How Can We Choose Better Snacks? A Review of the Definitions of Snacking, Motivations to Snack, Contributions to Dietary Intake, and Recommendations for Improvement"