It's no coincidence that the rapid rise in obesity happened around the same time highly processed foods became more available.
Although highly processed foods are convenient, they are packed with calories, low in nutrients and increase your risk of many diseases.
On the other hand, real foods are very healthy and can help you lose weight.
Real foods are single-ingredient foods that are rich in vitamins and minerals, lack chemical additives and are mostly unprocessed.
Here are just a few examples:
- Chia seeds
- Sweet potatoes
- Brown rice
- Whole eggs
- Unprocessed meat
There are lots of real foods in every food group, so there's a vast array you can incorporate into your diet.
Here are 11 reasons why real foods can help you lose weight.
Whole, unprocessed plant and animal foods are packed with vitamins and minerals that are great for your health.
Processed foods can slow down weight loss in several ways.
For instance, a diet of processed foods that doesn't provide enough iron could affect your ability to exercise, since iron is required to move oxygen around your body. This would limit your ability to burn calories through exercise (3).
A diet low in nutrients may also prevent you from losing weight by making you feel less full after eating.
One study in 786 people compared participants' feelings of fullness when they were on a low-micronutrient diet versus a high-micronutrient diet.
Nearly 80% of participants felt fuller after meals on the high-micronutrient diet, even though they were eating fewer calories than on the low-micronutrient diet (4).
When you're trying to increase your intake of nutrients, eating real foods is the way to go. They contain a variety of nutrients difficult to find in a single supplement, including plant compounds, vitamins and minerals.
Nutrients in whole foods also tend to work better together and are more likely to survive digestion than supplements (5).
Summary: A diet rich in nutrients may help with fat loss by improving nutritional deficiencies and reducing hunger.
Protein is the most important nutrient for fat loss.
Your food choices for protein are just as important as how much you eat. Real foods are a better source of protein since they aren't heavily processed.
Food processing can make several essential amino acids harder to digest and less available to the body. These include lysine, tryptophan, methionine and cysteine.
This is because proteins easily react with sugars and fats involved in processing to form a complex combination (9).
Whole sources of protein are typically higher in protein and lower in calories, which makes them better for fat loss.
For instance, 3.5 ounces (100 grams) of pork, a real food option, has 21 grams of protein and 145 calories (10).
Meanwhile, the same amount of bacon, a processed food, has 12 grams of protein and 458 calories (11).
Real food sources of protein include lean cuts of meat, eggs, legumes and nuts. You can find a great list of high-protein foods in this article.
Summary: Protein is the most important nutrient for fat loss. Real foods are better sources of protein since they are less processed and typically have more protein and less fat.
The natural sugars found in fruits and vegetables are not the same as refined sugars.
Fruits and vegetables contain natural sugars, but also provide other nutrients like fiber, vitamins and water, which are needed as part of a balanced diet.
Refined sugars, on the other hand, are often added to processed foods. The two most common types of added sugars are high-fructose corn syrup and table sugar.
Foods higher in refined sugars are often higher in calories and provide fewer health benefits. Ice cream, cakes, cookies and candy are just a few culprits.
Refined sugars also do little to keep you full. Studies show that a high intake of refined sugar can increase production of the hunger hormone ghrelin and dim the brain's ability to make you feel full (13, 14).
Since real foods don't contain any refined sugars, they are a much better choice for weight loss.
Summary: Real foods don't contain added sugar and have other nutrients that are great for your health. Foods high in added sugar are typically higher in calories, aren't as filling and increase your risk of obesity.
It mixes with water in the gut to form a thick gel, and may reduce your appetite by slowing the movement of food through the gut (15).
Another way soluble fiber may reduce appetite is by affecting the production of hormones involved in managing hunger.
Real foods typically have more soluble fiber than processed foods. Great sources of soluble fiber include beans, flaxseeds, sweet potatoes and oranges.
Ideally, aim to eat enough fiber daily from whole foods since they provide many other nutrients. However, people who struggle to eat enough fiber might also find a supplement useful.
Summary: Soluble fiber may help you lose weight by reducing your appetite. Great real food sources of soluble fiber include sweet potatoes, beans, fruits and vegetables.
Polyphenols can be divided into multiple categories, including lignans, stilbenoids and flavonoids.
One particular flavonoid that is linked with weight loss is epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG). It's found in green tea and provides many of its proposed benefits.
For instance, EGCG may help extend the effects of hormones involved in fat burning, such as norepinephrine, by inhibiting their breakdown (22).
Many studies show that drinking green tea may help you burn more calories. Most people in these studies burn 3–4% more calories daily, so the average person who burns 2,000 calories per day could burn 60–80 extra calories (23, 24, 25).
Summary: Real foods are a great source of polyphenols, which are plant molecules with antioxidant properties. Some polyphenols may help with fat loss, such as epigallocatechin gallate in green tea.
If there's one thing nutrition scientists agree on, it's that artificial trans fats are bad for your health and your waistline.
These fats are artificially made by pumping hydrogen molecules into vegetable oils, changing them from liquid to solid.
This treatment was designed to increase the shelf life of processed foods, like cookies, cakes and doughnuts (26).
For instance, one study found that monkeys who ate more artificial trans fat increased their weight by 7.2%, on average, compared to monkeys that ate a diet rich in monounsaturated fats, such as those found in olive oil.
Interestingly, all the fat the monkeys gained went straight to their belly area, which increases the risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes and other health conditions (28).
Fortunately, real foods don't contain artificial trans fats.
Summary: Artificial trans fats increase fat gain and boost the risk of many harmful diseases. Real foods don't contain artificial trans fats.
Taking time and eating slowly is a piece of weight loss advice that's often overlooked.
Real foods can help slow down your eating since they typically have a firmer, more fibrous texture that needs to be chewed more. This simple action can help you lose weight by making you feel full with a smaller amount of food.
For instance, a study in 30 men found those who chewed each bite 40 times ate about 12% less food than those who chewed 15 times.
The study also showed that participants who chewed each bite 40 times had less of the hunger hormone ghrelin in their blood after the meal, and more of the fullness hormones glucagon-like peptide-1 and cholecystokinin (32).
Summary: Real foods can help you eat slowly by making you chew more. This may reduce your appetite and leave you satisfied with less food.
The biggest challenge with weight loss often isn't the diet, but rather resisting cravings for sugary foods.
This is challenging, especially if you're someone who eats a lot of sweets.
Fruits like berries and stone fruit can provide a healthier sweet fix, helping satisfy sweet cravings when you start reducing your sugar intake.
It's also great to know your taste preferences don't last forever and can change as you change your diet. Eating more real foods may help your taste buds adapt and your sugar cravings may decrease over time, or possibly disappear (33, 34).
Summary: Real foods provide a healthier sweet fix. Eating more real foods may help your taste buds adapt, reducing cravings over time.
One big advantage of real foods is that they typically fill more of a plate than processed foods, while providing fewer calories.
Foods with fewer calories and more volume can fill you up more than foods with more calories and less volume. They stretch the stomach, and the stomach's stretch receptors signal the brain to stop eating.
Great food choices that are high in volume but low in calories include pumpkin, cucumbers, berries and air-popped popcorn.
Summary: Real foods typically have fewer calories per gram than processed foods. Great foods that are high in volume include pumpkin, cucumbers, berries and air-popped popcorn.
Interestingly, the rapid rise in obesity happened around the same time that highly processed foods became widely available.
An example of these changes can be seen in one study that observed the trends in highly processed food consumption and obesity in Sweden between 1960 and 2010.
The study found a 142% increase in the consumption of highly processed food, a 315% increase in soda consumption and a 367% increase in the consumption of highly processed snacks, such as chips and candy.
At the same time, obesity rates more than doubled, from 5% in 1980 to over 11% in 2010 (42).
Eating more real food reduces the intake of highly processed foods that provide few nutrients, are packed with empty calories and increase the risk of many health-related diseases (43).
Summary: Eating more real foods reduces the intake of processed foods, reducing your risk of obesity.
Following a crash diet may help you lose weight quickly, but keeping it off is the biggest challenge.
Most crash diets help you reach your goal by restricting food groups or drastically reducing calories.
Unfortunately, if their style of eating is something you can't maintain long-term, then keeping weight off can be a struggle.
That's where eating a diet rich in real foods can help you lose weight and maintain those benefits long-term. It shifts your focus to making food choices that are better for your waistline and your health.
Although this style of eating might mean weight loss takes longer to occur, you're more likely to maintain what you lose because you've made a lifestyle change.
Summary: Shifting your focus to eating more real foods, rather than following a diet, may help you lose weight and keep it off long-term.
A diet rich in real foods is great for your health and can also help you lose weight.
Real foods are more nutritious, contain fewer calories and are more filling than most processed foods.
By simply replacing processed foods in your diet with more real foods, you can take a big step towards living a healthier lifestyle.
What's more, developing a habit of eating real foods — rather than following a short-term diet — will make it easier for you to maintain long-term fat loss.
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