TIME Diet/Nutrition

61% of Your Calories Are From Highly Processed Food: Study

Most of the foods we buy are highly processed and loaded with sugar, fat and salt

As much as Americans like to pretend to worship at the altar of kale, many of us are cheating with chips, a new study suggests.

We like junk food so much that 61% of the food Americans buy is highly processed, according to research published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. And almost 1,000 calories a day of person’s diet come solely from highly processed foods.

Not all processed food is the same, however. The USDA classifies processed food as any edible that’s not a raw agricultural commodity, so even pasteurized milk and frozen fruits and vegetables count. “It’s important for us to recognize that a processed food is not just Coca-Cola and Twinkies—it’s a wide array of products,” says study author Jennifer Poti, a research assistant professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

So in the first study of its kind, researchers scrutinized our diets by analyzing a massive set of data of the foods we buy while grocery shopping. The stats came from 157,000 shoppers, who tracked their edible purchases with a barcode scanner from 2000-2012, for anywhere from 10 months to 14 years.

Using software that picked out words in the nutrition and ingredient labels, the 1.2 million products were placed into one of four categories : minimally processed—products with very little alteration, like bagged salad, frozen meat and eggs—basic processed—single-ingredient foods but changed in some way, like oil, flour and sugar—moderately processed—still recognizable as its original plant or animal source, but with additives—and highly processed—multi-ingredient industrial mixtures that are no longer recognizable as their original plant or animal source.

No surprise, our favorite categories are those last two. More than three-quarters of our calories came from highly processed (61%) and moderately processed (16%) foods and drinks in 2012. Best-selling products were refined breads, grain-based desserts like cookies, sugary sodas, juice, sports drinks and energy drinks.

Preferences for highly processed foods were remarkably stable over time, Poti says, which likely has implications for our health, since the study also found that highly processed foods were higher in saturated fat, sugar and salt than other purchases. But interestingly, no U.S. study has yet looked at the link between highly processed foods and health outcomes like obesity and diabetes, Poti says.

To be clear, the researchers aren’t pooh-poohing processing, per se. “Food processing is important for food security and nutrition security of Americans,” Poti says. The study wasn’t able to capture the full spectrum of our diets—loose spinach doesn’t come with a barcode, after all—and the authors acknowledge that food purchasing doesn’t always directly translate to dietary intake. But the results suggest that we might want to swap some bags of chips for, say, cans of beans. “Foods that required cooking or preparation”—like boxed pasta and raw eggs—”were generally less than 20% of calories purchased throughout the entire time period,” Poti says.

TIME Obesity

More Than a Third of U.S. Adults Have Metabolic Syndrome

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Elizabeth Renstrom for TIME

35% of us are at greater risk for all kinds of diseases

Metabolic syndrome—a set of health conditions including high blood pressure and too much abdominal fat that increase risk for stroke and heart disease—now affects more than one in three U.S. adults, according to a new study in JAMA.

The study, which used data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, found that the prevalence of metabolic syndrome in the U.S. increased from 32.9% in 2003-2004 to 34.7% in 2011-2012. It stayed steady between 2007-2008 and 2011-2012—a leveling off likely due to increased awareness about the risks of metabolic syndrome, the researchers write. Obesity prevalence, which is closely linked to the condition, has also stabilized, they note.

The prevalence of metabolic syndrome varied between people of different racial backgrounds. Hispanics had the highest prevalence of metabolic syndrome at 39%, followed by whites at 37.4% and blacks at 35.5%.

TIME public health

These Are the Healthiest (and Unhealthiest) Cities in America

A jogger runs past the United States Capitol building at sunrise in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Tuesday, Oct. 15, 2013.
Pete Marovich—Bloomberg/Getty Images A jogger runs past the United States Capitol building at sunrise in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Tuesday, Oct. 15, 2013.

West Coast cities make up six of the top 10

For the second year running Washington, D.C., tops the American Fitness Index (AFI) ranking as the healthiest metropolitan area in the U.S.

The nation’s capital can credit an above average access to public infrastructure for the top spot, according to the eighth annual report.

Minneapolis–St.Paul, Minn., came in second and three California metro areas — San Diego, the Bay Area and Sacramento — rounded out the top five.

“Our goal is to provide communities and residents with resources that help them assess, respond and achieve a better, healthier life,” said Walter Thompson, chair of the AFI advisory board, in a press release.

Indianapolis came in last place as it failed to reach the target goal in nearly all of the 32 health indicators measured. Memphis and Oklahoma City also ranked near the bottom.

The AFI used publicly available data points that are measured routinely and can be changed through community effort (so climate cannot be considered a health indicator).

Below you can find a list of the top-10 healthiest metro areas, according to the AFI:

  1. Washington, D.C.
  2. Minneapolis
  3. San Diego
  4. San Francisco
  5. Sacramento, Calif.
  6. Denver
  7. Portland
  8. Seattle
  9. Boston
  10. San Jose, Calif.
TIME Exercise/Fitness

Ballet Isn’t Good Exercise for Kids — but Hip-Hop Is, Study Says

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Only 30% of ballet class is spent in substantial exercise

Signing up your kid for ballet class might seem like a great way to get them some exercise. But when ranked against other forms of dance in terms of how much exercise it provides, ballet class didn’t even come close to first position.

“People are very aware of the obesity epidemic but not as concerned as they should be about the low levels of activity in our country,” says study author James Sallis, distinguished professor of family and preventive medicine at the University of California, San Diego, and author of the new study published in the journal Pediatrics. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends that American children and adolescents get an hour of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity each day, but many fall short — especially girls, who are consistently found to be less active than boys, he says.

But most kinds of dance aren’t helping close that gender gap, Sallis and his team found. Researchers studied the activity levels of 264 girls in two age ranges: children ages 5 to 10 and adolescents ages 11 to 18. The dancers were outfitted with accelerometers to measure the intensity of their movements. In total, the researchers measured levels in 66 dance classes of a wide range of styles: ballet, jazz, hip-hop, flamenco, salsa, tap and partnered dance like swing and ballroom.

Only 8% of children and 6% of adolescents achieved the 30-minute recommendation for after-school moderate-to-vigorous exercise.

UC San Diego School of MedicineGraphs showing percentage of dance-class time spent in moderate-to-vigorous physical activity for children and adolescents. Percentages based on averages.

In children, the type of dance really mattered. Hip-hop was the most active kind of dance, with 57% of class time being devoted to moderate-to-vigorous physical activity. Jazz took second place, followed by partnered class, tap, salsa and finally ballet, where 30% of class is spent in moderate-to-vigorous activity. (The rest of the class, as any once-tiny dancer will remember, was spent stretching, standing and listening to the teacher, the study found.) Flamenco class came in last, with 14% of class spent in substantial exercise.

But in adolescents, dance forms were much more similar in terms of the exercise they provided. Ballet actually rose in the ranks to first place, matching hip-hop in intensity. About 30% of both kinds of dance classes are moderate-to-vigorous for adolescents.
“Dance is a golden opportunity to contribute to the health of girls while they’re enjoying moving and being with their friends and building their physical competence and all the other things that dance does,” Sallis says. He and his team found that when kids are just learning a skill or a step, they’re not particularly active — until they put multiple steps together in a routine. “That’s when most of the activity takes place,” he says, and by teaching fewer steps and practicing more combinations, instructors can really make dance class count.

TIME Research

Preschoolers Aren’t Getting Enough Exercise, Study Says

Plenty of exercise is essential for a child's development and to prevent obesity

Even very young children in the U.S. are not active enough, says a new study.

Preschoolers only get about 48 minutes of exercise on average each day, according to a paper by the University of Washington and published in the journal Pediatrics. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends kids get at least one hour of daily physical activity.

After documenting children’s daily activities in 10 preschools in the Seattle area over a period of 50 days, researchers found that they were only exercising 12% of the time. The rest of their day was spent napping (29%), eating or generally being inactive.

On average, the children were outside for just more than half an hour a day, the study found.

“It’s just not enough,” Pooja Tandon, lead author of the study and assistant professor at the University of Washington, told USA Today.

Getting plenty of exercise at a young age, she said, was essential for a child’s development and for preventing obesity, which has risen dramatically over the past 30 years. According to the CDC, nearly 18% of children ages six to 11 are obese, compared to 7% in 1980.

To get kids more active, some health experts advocate combining academic activities in the classroom with exercise.

Debbie Chang, vice president of Nemours Children’s Health System in Delaware, says even reading a book, such as The Wheels on the Bus, can become part of a child’s daily exercise as they can get up and moving by acting out the scenes.

[USA Today]

TIME Obesity

‘Thrifty’ Metabolisms May Make It Harder to Lose Weight

File photo dated Thursday October 16, 2014. of a young girl using a set of weighing scales as slimmers should forget what they have been told about avoiding rapid weight loss in favour of slow but sure dieting, according to new research.
Chris Radburn—PA Wire/Press Association Images File photo dated Thursday October 16, 2014. of a young girl using a set of weighing scales as slimmers should forget what they have been told about avoiding rapid weight loss in favour of slow but sure dieting, according to new research.

The study marks the first time lab results have confirmed the widely held belief

Losing those love handles may be easier for some people than for others, says a new study that confirmed the theory that physiology plays a role in a person’s ability to lose weight.

According to a press release, researchers at the Phoenix Epidemiology and Clinical Research Branch studied the metabolisms of 12 obese men and women undergoing a six-week 50% calorie-reduction experiment. After measuring participants’ energy expenditure after a day of fasting and then re-examining them during the caloric-reduction period, researchers found that the slower the metabolism works during a diet, the less weight the person loses.

Coining the terms “thrifty” vs. “spendthrift” metabolisms, the experiment marks first time lab results have confirmed a widely held belief that a speedy metabolism plays a role in weight loss.

“While behavioral factors such as adherence to diet affect weight loss to an extent, our study suggests we should consider a larger picture that includes individual physiology — and that weight loss is one situation where being thrifty doesn’t pay,” said lead author Dr. Susanne Votruba, Ph.D.

Researchers have yet to figure out if the differences in metabolic speeds are innate traits or develop over time. Also, the study was only focused on weight loss, and the team does not know if the body’s response to caloric reduction can be used to prevent weight gain.

Over one-third of Americans are obese, and it leads to some of the most common forms of preventable deaths in the country.

TIME Nutrition

Most Parents of Obese Children Think Their Kids Are ‘Just Right’

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Because they're compared to their peers, not to medical standards

Parents of obese kids often don’t recognize that their kids are overweight, and the vast majority think their obese children are “just right,” according to a new study.

Researchers at NYU Langone Medical Center studied two groups of young children: a group of 3,839 kids from 1988-1994, and another group of 3,151 kids from 2007-2012, and published the findings in the journal Childhood Obesity. Similar findings were reported last year in the journal Pediatrics.

The NYU researchers found that even if their kids were overweight or obese, the vast majority of parents were likely to see no problem with their child’s weight. In the earlier group, 97% of parents of overweight boys and 88% of parents of overweight girls said their kids were “about the right weight.” In the more recent group, 95% of parents of overweight boys and 93% of parents of overweight girls thought so, too. The children in the later group were significantly more obese than the kids in the earlier group, but their parents were just as likely to see them as healthy.

In both groups, misperception about overweight kids being “just about the right weight” was most common among African-American and low-income parents, and the misperception decreased as family income rose. Researchers said this may be because lower-income parents are comparing their kids to their peers, who are also more likely to be overweight, rather than to medical standards.

Researchers warned that the lack of awareness of childhood obesity could contribute to the problem, because if parents don’t recognize that their children are overweight, then they won’t be able to help their kids.

TIME Obesity

Moving to a Poor Neighborhood Can Cause Weight Gain

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Elizabeth Renstrom for TIME

A new study shows when moving can widen your waistline

Where we live may influence how much we weigh even more than we once thought.

It’s long been known that a person’s neighborhood can impact how much they weigh; evidence suggests that socioeconomic environments influence a person’s ability to adopt healthy behaviors. Now, a new study suggests that moving between neighborhoods can also cause changes in body weight.

The research, published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, analyzed a sample of more than 1,000 Dallas County residents between the ages of 18 and 65 who researchers had followed for seven years. The study found that people who moved to more socioeconomically depressed neighborhoods gained weight.

To reach these findings, the residents were surveyed about their impressions of their neighborhoods. The neighborhoods were also rated based on a Neighborhood Deprivation Index (NDI) to determine socioeconomic status; a higher index indicates a more deprived neighborhood. Among the people in the study, 263 people moved to a neighborhood with a higher index, 586 moved to a lower-index neighborhood and 47 people moved to a neighborhood that had the same rating. Everyone else stayed in their same neighborhood.

The people who moved to the higher-index neighborhoods—the ones more deprived of resources—gained more weight compared to the people who moved to a neighborhood that had the same or lower index. For every 1-unit increase in the index, residents gained about 1.41 pounds. Of the people who moved to a more deprived neighborhood, the longer they stayed there, the larger the impact on their weight.

More research is needed before study authors can definitively explain the link, but they had a few speculations. The makeup of a more deprived neighborhood can encourage consumption of unhealthy foods or make it hard to stay fit, they say. Research has also linked changes in stress hormones to living in disadvantaged neighborhoods.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) says that living environments can encourage obesity and interfere with an unhealthy lifestyle; a lack of sidewalks and safe parks, a glut of fast-food restaurants with little access to fruits and vegetables, heavy food advertising and long work hours of residents all contribute. Prior research has shown that kids who live in places where they can walk to school or libraries were significantly less likely to be obese. And a 2011 study found that families who moved to less-impoverished neighborhoods had lower levels of obesity and diabetes compared to families who stayed in their original neighborhood.

The new study underlines the fact that living environments can have a great impact on body size and health. “Addressing neighborhood deprivation as a risk factor for obesity and obesity-related cardiovascular disease requires consideration of public policy that can address sources of deprivation,” the study authors conclude.

 

TIME Diet/Nutrition

Most British and Irish People Will Be Overweight or Obese By 2030

A woman stands outside a sandwich shop in Manchester, England, October 10, 2006
Paul Ellis—AFP/Getty Images A woman stands outside a sandwich shop in Manchester, England, October 10, 2006

An obesity epidemic of 'enormous proportions' will also affect the rest of Europe

Ireland, a country that was synonymous with starvation and famine in the 19th century, could become the most overweight country in Europe by 2030, with 89% of Irish men, and 85% of Irish women projected to be overweight by then. That’s according to a press statement made at the European Congress on Obesity in Prague on Wednesday.

The statement added that by 2030, 64% percent of women in the U.K., and nearly three-quarters of the male population, will be overweight, AFP reports.

The data stems from an examination of 37 countries in a forecast exercise, using 2010 data from the WHO and U.K. Health Forum. Being overweight is defined as having a body mass index (BMI) exceeding 25, and obesity as having a BMI of 30 or more.

With obesity’s growth skyrocketing more than twofold since 1980, almost 40% of the worldwide adult population — nearly two billion people — can now be classified as overweight, WHO data says. Of those two billion, more than 500 million are clinically obese.

Obesity costs the world nearly 3% of the global GDP, or $2 trillion in health and labor-related expenditures and losses, according to the McKinsey Global Institute.

[AFP]

TIME medicine

The Obesity Paradox: Can Body Fat Ever Be Good For You?

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Elizabeth Renstrom for TIME

More and more data suggests there may be a protective benefit from body fat. What's going on?

When it comes to a medical consensus on body fat here’s what we know: There isn’t one. The research is conflicting, interpreting the results can be confusing and even leading experts disagree about whether or not you can be healthy at any size.

More than one third of U.S. adults are obese. And being overweight or obese can put people at a greater risk for other health complications like heart disease and diabetes. Yet, in the last decade or so, there’s increasing data suggesting body fat may, in some cases, impart a kind of protective benefit. This has led to what’s known as the “obesity paradox”—the fact that moderately obese people with chronic diseases are often outliving normal-weight people with the same health issues.

The most recent example is a study published this week in the journal Annals of Internal Medicine. In the study, researchers looked at over 10,500 patients with type 2 diabetes who were followed for around 10 years. They found that overweight or obese people in the study had a higher rate of cardiac events like heart failure compared to people who were a normal weight. However, people who were overweight—but not obese—lived longer than the people who were of normal weight or underweight. In fact people who were underweight had the worst prognosis, the researchers showed.

“The explanation for these results is unknown and does not mean that patients with diabetes should try to become overweight,” the editors of Annals write. “Patients should continue to follow a healthy lifestyle.”

That doesn’t answer the question of why heavier people fared better by some measures, however—a question that has been plaguing researchers for more than a decade. Some researchers say they’ve had trouble getting their initial findings published in medical journals because it raises so many challenging questions. And for average joes, this emerging body of evidence continues to confuse.

Can Fat Help the Heart?

The latest study does not dispute the fact that being overweight puts people at risk for heart problems. But how can it be that the very factors that put people at risk for heart disease could also add years to their life?

In a 2014 study, a team of researchers conducted a meta-analysis of 36 studies and found that a that low BMI in thousands of patients with coronary artery disease who underwent surgery was associated with up to a 2.7-fold greater risk of heart attack and heart-related death over a follow up period of close to two years. But overweight and obese patients had better outcomes and heart-related death risk was lowest among overweight patients with a high BMI compared to people with a normal BMI.

When asked what’s going on, study author Dr. Abhishek Sharma said his team could only speculate. “One explanation may be that overweight patients are more likely to be prescribed cardioprotective medications such as beta blockers and statins and in higher doses than the normal weight population. Further, obese and overweight patients have been found to have large coronary vessel damage, which might contribute to more favorable outcomes,” he said.

That year, Dr. Kamyar Kalantar-Zadeh, a professor of medicine at the University of California, Irvine, wrote an editorial in the journal Mayo Clinic Proceedings likening body fat to an unscrupulous friend. He writes: “Metaphorically, we can liken such cardiovascular risk factors as obesity to a friend who is a negative influence, causing the two of you to misbehave and be sentenced to jail, but once imprisoned, the friend remains loyal and protects you against poor prison conditions and other inmates.”

Still, not everyone is convinced. Dr. JoAnn E. Manson, chief of the division of preventive medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, says that the finding that obese people with diabetes live longer is not consistent. Other studies have found the opposite to be true, and studies that look at a snapshot may not reveal the full story either she says.

In 2o12 researchers reported in the European Heart Journal that there are groups of people who are obese who are also metabolically healthy—people do not suffer from problems like insulin resistance or high blood pressure. “Physicians should take into consideration that not all obese people have the same prognosis,” the study authors wrote. The individuals they studied had higher fitness levels and better heart and lung function than other obese individuals, suggesting that perhaps it’s exercise that’s providing benefit for some.

“Metabolic health is on a continuum. People who are obese, even if they haven’t gotten to the level of hypertension, will still tend to have a higher blood pressure and blood sugar on average. Even if it’s within the normal range, it tends to be at a less healthy level overall,” says Manson. “People can cross over from being metabolically healthy to unhealthy over time. I think there are few, if any, circumstances where you would recommend that a patient be overweight or obese rather than a healthy weight.”

The Belly Fat Burden

It’s also possible that body fat may be more complicated than our currently understanding of it allows. Some experts have speculated that it may be that the type of fat we carry on the inside is important. A 2013 study showed normal-weight people with heart problems who also have belly fat have worse survival rates compared to obese people who carry their weight elsewhere, like on their thighs or rear.

Belly fat, also called visceral fat, is more harmful than fat that sits right under the skin because it’s embedded in muscles and organs. Some argue that our reliance on BMI is part of the problem. Many agree it’s an imperfect measurement, partially because it doesn’t distinguish between fat and muscle.

A measure of belly fat may be a better indicator for overall health. Some people of different weights may carry fat of varying degrees of risk and, as Brigham and Women’s Mason points out, weight alone can’t tell the full story of someone’s health. After all, someone with a low BMI who is thin may be thin because of another underlying illness or factor.

The Bottom Line (For Now)

Right now, there’s still lots of speculation and few definitive answers regarding the obesity paradox. But what hasn’t changed is that being overweight and obese are risk factors for chronic diseases—and belly fat specifically may be a contributor.

“There’s no question that if you are overweight or obese you have a higher risk of heart disease and diabetes. There will be people who fall into the metabolically healthy category, but it’s not a large proportion of people who are overweight or obese,” says Manson.

“If you start early by encouraging a healthy weight through the lifespan, you are going to have a lower incidence of diabetes and heart failure to begin with,” she continues. “Maintaining a healthy weight throughout life is the optimal approach to preventing chronic disease. That would be the public health recommendation.”

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