Scientists are investigating the possible link between processed foods and obesity, but some experts are warning against eating too much of them.
A new study by researchers at Harvard University and Duke University has found that those who consume the most processed foods, and especially processed foods containing added sugars and trans fats, are more likely to have an increased risk of obesity and type 2 diabetes.
The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, looked at more than 5,000 adults who had an average of 16 processed foods a day.
Those who consumed the most, ate the most sugar and added fats, and were also more likely than the other group to have metabolic syndrome — an elevated risk of heart disease, high blood pressure and stroke.
“It’s really interesting to look at the link between what you eat and what your body makes,” said Harvard’s Dr. Susan R. Daskalakis, lead author of the study.
“This is a new area of research, but there’s really good evidence for this.”
The study looked at people who were surveyed for the past five years and who were followed for a median of 20 years.
Researchers looked at participants’ food consumption, which included both processed and unprocessed foods, along with lifestyle factors such as exercise and diet.
The researchers used data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, or NHANES, which collected data on more than 6.5 million Americans in 2012.
In total, about 22 percent of participants in the study reported eating processed food, compared with just 13 percent of those who didn’t.
About one-third of participants also reported drinking alcohol and 17 percent reported taking prescription drugs.
The average American consumes about 14,000 calories a day and eats 2,000 to 2,500 grams of processed foods daily, according to the American Heart Association.
In comparison, the average American eats about 7,500 calories a week and eats less than 3,000 grams of unprocessured foods.
Researchers found that the consumption of processed and refined foods were linked to an increased likelihood of obesity.
People who ate the fewest processed foods were most likely to be overweight or obese, and those who ate less processed food had the lowest odds of obesity, the researchers found.
The amount of processed sugar, trans fats and salt were also linked to higher risk of type 2 diabetics, as well as higher risk for type 2 heart disease and diabetes.
“Our results suggest that in people who consume processed foods most, they are also the most likely individuals to have a higher risk [of obesity],” Daskerakis said.
“That’s important because if we think about obesity as an excess of body fat and diabetes as a deficit of energy, these are the individuals who are at greatest risk for both.”
She said the new study’s findings could help health care providers determine how to best promote healthy eating.
“There’s a lot of emphasis that we should be eating less processed foods,” Daskarakis said, adding that the study found that there was no clear connection between the amount of sugar in processed foods or the type of sugar added.
“The bottom line is that processed foods are linked to obesity, and there is no clear evidence that people who eat a lot are actually more likely [to have diabetes].
But the data shows that it is the processed foods that are associated with higher obesity risk.”
The researchers added that more research is needed to know if eating too many processed foods is a risk factor for obesity and diabetes, and whether it might be related to some other health conditions.
The American Heart Institute has an obesity prevention policy that calls for healthy eating, moderate activity, and regular exercise to reduce the risk of disease.
The organization’s president and CEO, Dr. Donald F. Morrissette, told ABC News that while he doesn’t think that the new findings are a cause for alarm, the group is taking steps to reduce sugar consumption and improve the health of people.
“We’re continuing to promote healthy lifestyle, which includes eating less refined sugar, eating fruits and vegetables, and exercise, but it’s not just a diet,” Morrisette said.
He said that there are some health benefits to being active.
“I think there are things that we do that are good for us that we can do that make us feel better, and it’s also good for our overall health,” Morrisette said, noting that some people may benefit from exercise because it helps them lose weight.
“If you do something like exercise, it doesn’t just increase your energy level; it can improve your blood pressure.
If you’re going to eat a balanced diet, it’s important to take the right steps.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.