Leigh Frame, PhD, MHS Director for the Integrative Medicine Program School of Medicine and Health Sciences George Washington University

Obesity Epidemic Linked to Ultra-Processed Foods

MedicalResearch.com Interview with:

Leigh Frame, PhD, MHS Director for the Integrative Medicine Program School of Medicine and Health Sciences George Washington University

Dr. Frame

Leigh Frame, PhD, MHS
Director for the Integrative Medicine Program
School of Medicine and Health Sciences
George Washington University

MedicalResearch.com: What is the background for this study?

Response: As food consumed in the U.S. becomes more and more processed, obesity may become more prevalent. Through reviewing overall trends in food, we concluded that detailed recommendations to improve diet quality and overall nutrition are needed for consumers, who are prioritizing food that is cheaper and more convenient, but also highly processed.

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. 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.

MedicalResearch.com: What are the main findings? 

Response: The rising obesity epidemic in the U.S., as well as related chronic diseases, are correlated with a rise in ultra-processed food consumption. The foods most associated with weight gain include potato chips, sugar sweetened beverages, sweets and desserts, refined grains, red meats, and processed meats, while lower weight gain or even weight loss is associated with whole grains, fruits, and vegetables. Other food trends outlined in the report include insufficient dietary fiber intake, a dramatic increase in food additives like emulsifiers and gums, and a higher prevalence of obesity, particularly in women.

MedicalResearch.com: What should readers take away from your report? 

Response: Rather than solely treating the symptoms of obesity and related diseases with medication, we need to include efforts to use food as medicine. Chronic disease in later years is not predestined, but heavily influenced by lifestyle and diet. 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. Health care providers must also emphasize lifestyle medicine, moving beyond ‘a pill for an ill.’   

MedicalResearch.com: What recommendations do you have for future research as a result of this work?

Response: In mice and in vitro trials, emulsifiers, found in processed foods, have been found to alter microbiome compositions, elevate fasting blood glucose, cause hyperphagia, increase weight gain and adiposity, and induce hepatic steatosis. Recent human trials have linked ultra-processed foods to decreased satiety (fullness), increased meal eating rates (speed), worsening biochemical markers, including inflammation and cholesterol, and more weight gain. In contrast, populations with low meat, high fiber, and minimally processed foods — the “blue zones” — have far less chronic diseases, obesity rates, and live longer disease-free. The next step for research is to translate the findings in mouse and in vitro models into humans, as animal and cell culture models do not always pan out in human trials.

Is there anything else you would like to add? Any disclosures?  

Any disclosures?  Janese Laster, MD, a gastroenterologist in Washington, D.C., also co-authored the report. The project was conducted independently and did not receive outside funding.


            Kevin D. Hall, Alexis Ayuketah, Robert Brychta, Hongyi Cai, Thomas Cassimatis, Kong Y. Chen, Stephanie T. Chung, Elise Costa, Amber Courville, Valerie Darcey, Laura A. Fletcher, Ciaran G. Forde, Ahmed M. Gharib, Juen Guo, Rebecca Howard, Paule V. Joseph, Suzanne McGehee, Robert Ouwerkerk, Klaudia Raisinger, Irene Rozga, Michael Stagliano, Mary Walter, Peter J. Walter, Shanna Yang, Megan Zhou.Ultra-Processed Diets Cause Excess Calorie Intake and Weight Gain: An Inpatient Randomized Controlled Trial of Ad Libitum Food Intake. Cell Metabolism, 2019; DOI: 10.1016/j.cmet.2019.05.008



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Last Updated on January 15, 2020 by Marie Benz MD FAAD