THE BLOG

So What if Processed Foods Have Slightly Fewer Calories?

01/15/2014 06:40 pm ET | Updated Mar 17, 2014

Media outlets and various experts in the health field are cheering a report released Thursday by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation stating that 16 of the top food and beverage manufacturers in the United States cut 6.4 trillion calories from their products over the past five years.

Well, there could be worse news, but cutting a few calories from processed foods and calling this a coup is like celebrating a 10 percent discount on shoes that were originally marked up 300 percent. Slightly marked down designer shoes are still overpriced, and lower-calorie junk food is still junk food.

With new research strongly suggesting not all calories are created equal (like the recent report in the New England Journal of Medicine that people who eat a lot of high-calorie, high-fat nuts tend to be thinner than people who don't eat nuts), this news may be inconsequential.

People who continue to eat a diet heavy in processed foods and beverages from the companies listed in the RWJF report (ConAgra, Kraft Foods and Coca-Cola among them) might just eat a higher volume of the lower-calorie versions or seek the missing calories from another poor source.

We should have learned by now that food companies rarely cut calories or fat without replacing what's missing with something potentially more damaging to the consumer. We now know that margarine is far worse for us than real butter and most fat-free products contain extra sugars and artificial ingredients to add the texture and flavor lost from cutting the fat. "Free" foods can have serious hidden costs, and most low-fat and low-calorie processed foods aren't much better from a nutrition standpoint.

Processed foods, most of which are high in sugars and starches (which convert quickly to sugar in the bloodstream), disrupt natural hunger and satiety cues, causing people to overeat. Whether a packaged food in which the first two ingredients are white flour (or rice, corn or potato) and sugar is 300 calories or 280 calories makes no difference. Eating junk food doesn't satisfy cravings; it stimulates more cravings.

My overweight clients often complain of being "addicted to carbs," and they may very well be, as sweets and other high glycemic foods like bread, crackers, chips and cereal (even the ones marketed as "whole grain") put the body on a glucose roller coaster, causing more cravings for sugar and carbohydrates as blood sugar crashes from its last high.

Research has even shown that the brain circuitry patterns of people who eat too much junk food mirrors that of drug addicts, meaning junk food may be as addictive as cocaine. Would we be celebrating if a drug addict consumed slightly less cocaine than he did five years ago?

Even as books like Wheat Belly and Grain Brain (which recommend gluten-free, low-grain diets) dominate the bestseller lists and nutrition experts from science writer Michael Pollan to Dr. Oz warn consumers about the dangers of processed foods (including low-fat and low-calorie products), authorities in the health and food industries are still preoccupied with lowering consumers' fat and calorie intake with little regard to the overall quality of their diets. This makes no sense to those of us who have cut low-fat and fat-free processed foods from our diets, replaced them with high-calorie and/or high-fat whole foods like eggs, avocados and nuts and lost weight.

Weight Watchers made significant improvements over the past five years by incentivizing people to eat high quality foods rather than just count calories (points were previously based on calorie content, so an apple and an Oreo had the same points under the old system), but the majority of weight loss plans are still based solely on calorie-counting, and the majority still fail consumers in the long-run.

Weight loss and health improvements will only occur when people eliminate junk food and replace it with whole, satisfying and nutrient-dense foods, some of which may (gasp!) have slightly more calories than processed foods.

Lindsay Hill is a board-certified health coach and the author of
The Get Real Diet published in 2013.