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The Link Between Ultra-processed Foods and Overeating

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In today's fast-paced world, ultra-processed foods are increasingly popular due to their convenience and affordability. These foods are often high in calories, sugar, salt, and unhealthy fats. They are also typically low in essential nutrients like fiber, vitamins, and minerals. While these foods may taste good and be satisfying in the short term, research suggests that they may be contributing to the obesity epidemic by causing overeating.

What are Ultra-processed Foods?

Ultra-processed foods are industrial products that are typically made from refined ingredients such as sugar, flour, and oils. They are often high in calories and low in essential nutrients. Examples of ultra-processed foods include soft drinks, fast food, breakfast cereals, candy, and processed meats.

How Ultra-processed Foods Contribute to Overeating and Weight Gain

One of the main ways that ultra-processed foods contribute to overeating is by disrupting our body's natural appetite control mechanisms. These foods are often designed to be highly palatable, meaning that they taste good and are satisfying to eat. This can cause us to overeat because we don't feel full or satisfied even after consuming a lot of calories.

Additionally, ultra-processed foods are often high in sugar and refined carbohydrates, which can cause spikes and crashes in blood sugar levels. This can lead to feelings of hunger and cravings, making it harder to resist overeating.

Research also suggests that ultra-processed foods may interfere with our body's natural ability to regulate calorie intake. For example, studies have found that people tend to eat more calories when they consume ultra-processed foods compared to whole, unprocessed foods.

The Link Between Ultra-processed Foods and Weight Gain

Given the link between ultra-processed foods and overeating, it's not surprising that these foods have been linked to weight gain. Studies have found that people who consume a lot of ultra-processed foods tend to have higher body weight, body mass index (BMI), and waist circumference compared to those who consume fewer of these foods.

Additionally, a recent study published in the journal Cell Metabolism found that people who consumed a diet high in ultra-processed foods gained more weight and body fat than those who consumed a diet of minimally processed foods, even when the calorie intake was the same.

What Studies Tell Us

A study published on May 16, 2019, in Cell Metabolism suggests that consuming ultra-processed foods, such as deli meat, canned fruit in syrup, and breakfast cereal, leads to overeating and weight gain compared to consuming unprocessed foods like oatmeal with bananas, walnuts, and skim milk.

The study involved 20 men and women who were randomly assigned to one of two diets, with one group consuming ultra-processed foods and the other consuming unprocessed foods. Both diets were matched for total calories, macronutrients, fiber, sugars, and sodium, and participants could eat as much or as little as they wanted. The researchers found that participants consumed more calories and gained more weight when eating ultra-processed foods, compared to unprocessed foods.

Although the exact reason for this is unclear, researchers did find that appetite-suppressing hormones decreased and hunger hormones increased when people ate processed foods. Therefore, it is advisable to consume whole, unprocessed foods with minimal ingredients for better health outcomes.

The Health Risks of Overeating and Weight Gain

Overeating and weight gain can have serious health consequences. Excess weight has been linked to an increased risk of many chronic health conditions, including type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and certain types of cancer.

Additionally, overeating and weight gain can have negative effects on mental health, leading to feelings of low self-esteem, depression, and anxiety.


While ultra-processed foods may be convenient and tasty, research suggests that they may be contributing to overeating and weight gain. If you're looking to maintain a healthy weight and reduce your risk of chronic health conditions, it's important to limit your consumption of these foods and choose more whole, unprocessed options whenever possible.

By being mindful of what you eat and making small changes to your diet, you can improve your health and well-being in the long run. Choosing whole, unprocessed foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins can provide you with the essential nutrients your body needs to function properly.

Additionally, cooking at home and meal planning can be effective ways to reduce your intake of ultra-processed foods. When you cook at home, you have more control over the ingredients you use and can ensure that your meals are balanced and healthy.

It's also important to be mindful of your portion sizes and to listen to your body's hunger and fullness signals. Eating slowly and savoring your food can help you feel more satisfied and prevent overeating.

In summary, while ultra-processed foods may be tempting and convenient, they are not the healthiest choice for our bodies. By making small changes to our diet and lifestyle, we can reduce our intake of these foods and improve our overall health and well-being.

Caroline Buckee

Caroline Flannigan is an epidemiologist. She is an Associate Professor of Epidemiology and is the Associate Director of the Center for Communicable Disease Dynamics.

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