Guy with 2 desserts
Food choices now can add up later. / Image: roger_mommaerts/Flickr/CC BY-SA

A 20-year study conducted at Harvard University has found that certain foods are more likely to contribute to long-term weight gain. Generally these foods include sugary items, refined grains, unprocessed red meat and processed meats. Behavioral factors also affect long-term gain.

An average of 17 pounds over 20 years

The study, which is the  first to look at long-term weight gain in relation to specific foods, was published recently  in the New England Journal of Medicine. The study looked at more than 100,000 men and women, evaluating  their weight every four years. The average weight gain per four year interval was 3.35 pounds, about 17 pounds average for 20 years.

Potato chips the largest culprit

The study found that potato chips and other potato products contribute the largest weight gain over time. Dr. Dariush Mozzafarian, the study’s lead author, suspected this was because refined carbohydrates creates spikes of blood sugar and insulin, which increases hunger.

The other highest culprits were sugary drinks, unprocessed red meat, processed meat and alcohol. Jeannie Moloo, a spokesperson for the American Dietary Association, said, “Satiety is a big thing. Consuming these foods could be less satiating and less filling, triggering hunger signals.”

“Our findings indicate that small dietary and other lifestyle changes can, together, make a big difference, for bad or good,” Mozzafarian wrote. “Eat fewer starches and refined foods like potatoes, white bread, low-fiber breakfast cereals, processed meats, sweets and soda.”

Cutting out sodas is a good start

“I basically always talk to patients about whether we can reduce the calories they’re getting from beverages,” said Cleveland Clinic dietitian Laura Jeffers. “That’s one of the easiest things to do, and this research shows that sugary beverages contribute to weight gain.”

“They add a lot of empty calories to the diet, but they don’t have any impact on how full you feel or how much you eat,” nutritionist Monica Reinagel added. She suggested drinking water with meals instead of soda drinks can cut several hundred calories from a sitting and not change how satisfied a person feels afterward.

Foods that helped with weight loss were yogurt, vegetables, fruit and nuts.

Dietary habits are a big factor

Reinagel added that it was important not to just blame weight gain on the types of food consumed. It is also important to examine a person’s dietary habits. “They may not eat as many vegetables. They might consume more alcohol. Perhaps they’re less active,” she said.

Sleep and how active a person was also played a major role in weight gain. Those who slept at least six  hours a night were less likely to gain weight. Of course, the more physically active a person is, the more calories they burn.

‘Be active’

Mozzafarian summed up with advice that, though not earth-shattering, many of us could benefit from heeding. “Be active,” he said. “Turn off the TV, and get enough sleep.”


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