Processed Foods Highly Correlated with Obesity

Processed Foods Highly Correlated with Obesity Epidemic in the U.S.Jan 2020 – Source Newsroom: George Washington University

This rings absolutely true to me, but… “correlation is *not* causation.” Still…

As food consumed in the U.S. becomes more and more processed, obesity may become more prevalent.

Through reviewing overall trends in food, George Washington University (GW) researcher Leigh A. Frame, PhD, MHS, 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. 

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.”  

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.

This sounds perfectly plausible and even probable, but we have to remember that correlation alone is not cause or outcome, especially when determined from retrospective data.

As much as I want to believe this, I force myself to remember that we can find all kinds of bizarre links between completely unrelated trends. A quick look at the Spurious Correlations website shows the folly of equating correlation with cause.

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.

Now they are getting a little ridiculous: many medications we’re prescribed can “alter microbiome compositions” far more than the food we eat and anything we eat too much of leads to  “weight gain and adiposity”.

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.

Again, being “linked” to something is not the same as being the “cause of” something.

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.

…we need to include efforts to use food as medicine,

As we age and our bodies are no longer as resilient to abuse, I and several of my friends have all come to realize that the material we put into our bodies day after day may be the most important factor in our health that’s under our control (more or less).

After all, as they say about data processing: “garbage in, garbage out.”

Chronic disease in later years is not predestined, but heavily influenced by lifestyle and diet.”

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.
“Beyond the Calories—Is the Problem in the Processing?” was published in Current Treatment Options in Gastroenterology  [Abstract annotated below]

Beyond the Calories—Is the Problem in the Processing? | SpringerLinkNov 2019 (full text not available)


Purpose of review

The purpose of this review is to describe the trends in dietary patterns and food quality over time along with the possible role of ultra-processed foods in obesity, chronic diseases, and all-cause mortality in the US population.


As the USA continues to industrialize, food has become more processed and cheaper and more convenient along with the coexistent rise in obesity prevalence.

This review highlights the overall trends in food:

  1. mild improvements in dietary quality in higher socioeconomic populations, but
  2. no significant increases in whole fruit, vegetables, legumes, or nuts.

Consumption of ultra-processed food is associated with weight gain and may contribute to metabolic syndrome and chronic disease.

To combat this epidemic, we must create and disseminate detailed recommendations to improve diet quality and overall nutrition.

After finding that people need “food that is cheaper and more convenient”, they should realize that the problem is *not* that people don’t know it’s not healthy.

The problem is that the demands of modern industrialized life. People don’t have enough time, energy, or money to pursue a healthier diet, which is often more time-consuming, labor-intensive, and expensive than “fast food”.

Our lifestyle these days has become literally “hazardous for health”.

And as we bring this unrestrained avaricious industrialization, both of the workforce and the food they eat, to developing countries, they start suffering these same deleterious effects from their “cheaper and more convenient, but also highly processed” diets.

This “migration” of obesity around the planet seems, to me, the clearest indicator that processed food is at least partly to blame. The correlation between the two by now has been demonstrated repeatedly in a variety of settings/countries, making it much less likely to be a spurious connection. 

2 thoughts on “Processed Foods Highly Correlated with Obesity

  1. Kathy C

    This is really awful, and it is actively causing deaths, childhood obesity and diabetes. In many areas there are no fresh foods available, but this garbage is everywhere. From the way that supermarkets are set up, to the ubiquitous dollar stores in every low income neighborhoods, it is hard to avoid. This stuff is profitable too, longer shelf lives, and cheap ingredients, make this more profitable to sell, that perishable real food.

    The wellness industry is making this worse, blaming people who are effected instead of looking at food deserts, or the proliferation of fast food joints, deceptive marketing, and the big box stores. This problem is now generational, people who grew up on fast foods and processed food are now raising their children on this stuff.

    The health effects are really clear, yet the deceptive marketing and availability, make this so pervasive. The media will not effectively cover any of it either their need to please the big advertisers, and promote diets and the false idea of “choice.” In my town, more and more fast food joints are opening, after all they provide “jobs” and make local politicians look good. These “jobs” are low paying and do not help the local economy, but they make it look like progress.

    Like the so called “opioid epidemic” the harmful effects of rampant unregulated capitalism, and the ability of lobbyists to mislead the politicians, go unchecked. They are still casting doubt on the correlations, and misleading the public about a serious public health issue. The only response has been to market diets, endorse extreme behavior, like the “keto diet,” rebranding an 80s diet fad for a new market, and peddling wellness cures. The CDC refuses to address any of this, even though it is killing Americans, to do so would cut into corporate profits.

    In the meantime, they are re-framing suicide too. The rate went up again, and they are still peddling misinformation. They are not going to discuss the people with health problems who commit suicide or the people with chronic pain. Taking a fact based, evidence based approach to this problem, would not be profitable either. They are clearly not using evidence based methods, since they leave out substantial facts, and make it sound like a one size fits all, that can be alleviated with a phone call. They made Apps, and set up hotlines and the death rate went up. They believe they can market their way out of this public health issue too. Pharma funded “awareness programs” appear to be giving people ideas, but there is no deadly health issue, that can’t be used for marketing.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Zyp Czyk Post author

      You are so right: “there is no deadly health issue, that can’t be used for marketing.”

      Healthcare is being determined by profit, not by patient outcomes, which are getting worse and worse in this country compared to others.



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