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5 Foods That Make You Fat?

"5 Foods That Make You Fat?" I think not. Misreporting of science in the press last week will lead to more confusion -- not a clearer view of healthy eating.

Last week, the press covered a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine with headlines like "5 Foods That Make You Fat."  An article about the same study in the LA Times claimed that Harvard University researchers declared the potato "Public Enemy No. 1 in America's battle of the bulge."  These are gross misinterpretations of the science.  

The study looked at what people ate over time and looked at their weight gain and loss over that time.  They then looked for correlations between what was eaten and weight changes.  What they found was that people who consumed the most potato chips also gained the most weight.   Next on the list were potatoes, sugar-sweetened beverages, unprocessed red meats, then processed meats.

What is wrong then with claiming these foods make you fat?  It is attributing cause where only a correlation was found.  This is a common error, but a grievous one.  In the article, the authors cautioned against making that mistake.  They explicitly acknowledged that the cause could be reversed. 

For example, consider the first finding, "people who ate the most potato chips gained the most weight."  What the study is telling us is that people who ate the most potato chips consumed the most calories.  Is it from the potato chips per se?  We do not know that.  The study did not report how many calories came from each food group.  A reasonable alternative possibility is that people who ate the most potato chips tended to have less mindful snacking habits, perhaps consuming a variety of snacks while watching TV and not noticing portion size.  Potato chips may have just been the best marker for that habit.  The salt on the potato chips makes people thirsty.  What were the potato chips being washed down with?  I'll bet it wasn't water, but more calorie laden beverages. 

Second, consider the finding, "people who ate the most potatoes gained the second greatest amount of weight."  Keep in mind here that "potatoes" includes all forms of potatoes.  In the US the majority of potatoes we consume are in the form of french fries, and in the home pre-formed potato products (e.g., tater tots) (Source: US Potato Board), both of which have significant added fat and calories.  It is unlikely the potato per se is the culprit here.  A medium (5.4 oz) baked potato has 145 Calories (source: USDA); A large (5.4 oz) order of french fries from McDonald's has 500 Calories (source: McDonald's).  The reason potatoes are near the top of this list is most likely because of how we prepare them (fried), what we add to them (sour cream and butter), and what we pair them with (oversized steaks, turkey & gravy with all the fixings).

Sugar sweetened beverages probably do have the most direct cause-link to obesity.  We do know that when people consume "liquid calories" they tend to consume more calories than food form.  So, watching the amounts you consume does require more thoughtful intervention than with food.  And we know that high consumption of sugars (all forms) delivers a high-fructose load which has a cascade of effects which may increase obesity.(1)  Still, it isn't the consumption of the occasional pop that makes you fat.  It is the chronic high consumption that this and other studies correlate to high obesity rates.

I hope you can see that what this study found was not obesity forming foods, but rather foods that are markers for high calories diets.   Those foods are not your enemy.  Rather, as with any food, you need to keep portions, variety, and overall calorie balance in mind.

The study also pointed out five foods for which people gained the least weight over time.  They were yogurt, nuts, fruits, whole grains, and vegetables.  Again, we need to be clear.  Consuming these food won't mean you will lose weight.  Rather, these foods are markers of diets which are more healthful; diets that are less likely to add weight.  As a nutritionist, I highly encourage you to include these foods in your diet.  But portion control, quantity, and thoughtfulness about what you add to them and pair them with are still vital lessons to avoiding weight gain.

For the record, there are other problems with the study that would prevent the thoughtful reader from putting too much stock into the findings.  In addition to being cautious about assuming "link"means there is cause and effect, we always need to be skeptical about findings from any single study.  These studies are useful for people like me who can put them into context.  But the press does a disservice to the public with the reporting that I linked to above. 

Eric Esterling is a registered dietitian (RD) with a Masters in Nutrition and a passion for dispelling bad science reporting.  If you have any questions, please ask.

(1) Tappy L, Lê KAA. Metabolic effects of fructose and the worldwide increase in obesity. Physiological Reviews. 2010 Jan;90(1):23-46.

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Pat Maguire Parrie July 09, 2011 at 03:21 PM
Eric, nice to read truthfully informative information in a column about food/nutrition. For those of us who generally ENJOY eating, would you address the information seen in ads currently printed everywhere about the three foods that will dispel fat and/or make you thin. ;o) Thanks!
Eric Esterling July 11, 2011 at 02:29 AM
Hi Pat, I see advertisements like that all the time. If you want me to address three specific foods, please provide a link or a list of the three foods. But in general, these ads are as silly as they seem. I'm reminded of Roseanne Barr who gained weight on the "Slim-Fast" diet because she found the Slim-Fast bars to be delicious. At the end of the day, it is primarily about calorie balance (eat less, move more). In general, fruits and non-starchy vegetables and to a lesser extent whole grains are relatively filling for the calories; consuming more will likely help most people lose weight as long as they displace higher calorie foods. Taking measures like flavoring with cinnamon rather than sugar, reduces calories. But none of this is about miracle foods. It's about taking sensible measures to decrease calories.
Pat Maguire Parrie July 11, 2011 at 02:41 AM
Oh, darn...I was hoping YOU knew the 3 magic weight loss foods! ;o) I know, if it SOUNDS too good to be true, it generally is! Tough choices out there...eat eggs, fats etc but NO carbs....eat only foods in these pairings....eat 5 small meals a day....eat 1200 calories or less and live to be 100....eat these berries and not those fruits.....which guru to follow? Thanks for the honest reminder...eat less/move more!
Shakey September 24, 2011 at 11:44 AM
It all comes down to "each day you have to burn more calories than what you put in" very simple, but very difficult to do.
Janet Sroczynski September 26, 2011 at 10:30 PM
Thanks for the comments Eric Esterling. Once again, it is the US-Government's continued "over-reach" into our personal lives, and our children's too. I am assuming that you've seen/read: 1) http://www.HuffingtonPost.com/2011/09/26/potatoes-could-be-banned-n-980950.html - regarding: "USDA Could Ban Potatoes from School Breakfasts, Reduce from Lunches -article by: David Sharp. Where your column commented on Harvard University, "no surprises" there either....typical of those who are pro-BMI-Body Mass Index counters. Notice the public schools in Massachusetts were "hoping" to gain that personal, private information from parents as well, last year...as pertains to their children, even in the elementary schools. That has traditionally been personal, and private information -to be shared between doctor and child/parent -relationship. Not the public schools, nor BMI-Body Mass Index bean-counters. One could always deny funding for these outrageous ideas, and restore the potato to it's proper place in our diet(s). Go Potato! And all the vitamins and nutrients you bring to the table!
Janet Sroczynski September 27, 2011 at 01:49 PM
Perhaps Eric, a few points could be addressed by Emeril Lagasse - as he launches his 8th television series..."Emeril's Table" - part of the Hallmark Channel's daytime line-up. Read: Emeril Lagasse Keeps Cooking with New Series -article by Michele Kayal.
Janet Sroczynski September 27, 2011 at 03:09 PM
Additional links to read: 1) http://www.home.howstuffworks.com/potatoes3.htm-"Health Benefits of Potatoes;" and 2) http:WHFoods.com/genpage.php. Given the potato is the Number One vegetable crop in the world-yes #1, one might wish to understand the job loss(es) in the economy, and what the socio-economic loss would be to the many farmers, around the globe - should the USDA ban potatoes from school breakfasts, reduce from lunches-see my prior comments above. Whose financial endowment is going to take the hit?
Janet Sroczynski September 29, 2011 at 03:40 PM
Eric - regarding my comments above, if interested check out: 1) http://www.CliffsCommunities.com - healthy "lifestyle choices" as I mentioned above.

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