Low-Protein Diet From Processed Foods Drives Overeating And Is Fueling Obesity Crisis, Study Finds


The low protein content of highly processed foods like soda, chips and fast food could be key to understanding why they are fueling rising rates of obesity in the Western world, according to research published in the journal Obesity, underscoring the macronutrient’s central role in the growing public health crisis and possible interventions that could help people eat better.

Key Facts

The amount of protein eaten during the first meal of the day has a profound influence on what people went on to eat at subsequent meals, researchers found, according to a study of self-reported national survey data on nutrition and physical activity covering more than 9,300 Australians.

Those consuming higher levels of protein at the start of the day had lower overall energy intakes—energy beyond what the body needs is stored, often as fat—throughout the day compared to those who consumed lower levels of protein during the first meal, the researchers found.

Those eating low levels of protein in the first meal ate more at subsequent meals and tended to eat more energy-dense processed foods high in saturated fats, sugars, salt or alcohol, the researchers found, as well as eating less recommended food groups like grains, vegetables and fruit.

This further decreased the proportion of energy gained from protein, the researchers said, as such foods are typically poor sources of the macronutrient, an effect termed “protein dilution.”

The finding bolsters the idea that protein is a key driver of human appetite and the obesity epidemic, the researchers said, suggesting that people are driven to eat more and eat more unhealthily to satisfy their body’s need for protein.

David Raubenheimer, a professor at the University of Sydney involved in the research, said it has become “increasingly clear that our bodies eat to satisfy a protein target,” describing the finding as a “revolutionary insight” in understanding human nutrition and the drivers of obesity.

Key Background

Obesity—defined as having excess weight, usually from fat, beyond what is considered healthy for a given height—is widely recognized as one of the leading public health problems of the modern age. Beyond the strains excess weight can directly impose on the body, it is linked to a shorter lifespan and a myriad of major health conditions and killers like heart disease, cancer and diabetes. Obesity is known to impair the immune system and can make people more vulnerable to serious outcomes for a number of other diseases, including Covid-19, where it can triple the risk of hospitalization. More than one third of adults in the U.S. are obese, according to the CDC, more than 72 million people. Even more are considered overweight, a lesser though still unhealthy amount of excess weight, which is also associated with many health risks. This burden is not felt evenly across the U.S., with some groups having noticeably higher rates of obesity. Black and Hispanic Americans have rates of obesity much higher than white Americans, for example, the CDC says. Obesity is also a growing and significant problem among children, affecting around 1 in 5. The Covid-19 pandemic exacerbated the obesity crisis in many countries, including the U.S.

Big Number

$173 billion. That’s the estimated cost of obesity to the U.S. health system each year, according to research cited by the CDC. Medical costs for obese adults were $1,861 higher than costs for adults with healthy weight, the researchers found, rising to nearly $3,100 for those with severe obesity. Children with obesity and severe obesity had higher medical costs of $116 and $310 a year, they estimated, amounting to $1.3 billion in medical spending a year.

Surprising Fact

Obesity is more than just a public health threat, it’s also a threat to national security. Military leaders and the CDC both warn that high levels of obesity and physical inactivity, particularly among young adults, hamper the nation’s ability to muster military might. Only 2 in 5 young adults aged 17 to 24 are able to take part in basic training, the CDC said. Just over 1 in 3 are too heavy to serve and, of those eligible, only 3 in 4 report physical activity levels that would prepare them for basic training, the agency said. The issue is compounding problems for military recruiters, who are struggling to meet targets with Gen Z, and costs the Department of Defense around $1.5 billion in related health costs each year.

Further Reading

Trouble for the Pentagon: The Troops Keep Packing On the Pounds (NYT)

Why America needs new urgency around diet-related diseases (Axios)

Source: https://www.forbes.com/sites/roberthart/2022/11/08/low-protein-diet-from-processed-foods-drives-overeating-and-is-fueling-obesity-crisis-study-finds/