Study: Even Small Amounts Of Junk Food Can Make You Fatter Over Time

According to a new study, poor eating habits you pick up over time may not make you noticeably plumper immediately, but will slowly add permanent pounds over the years.

Reuters reports a Harvard School of Public Health and Brigham and Women’s Hospital study that appeared in the New England Journal of Medicine tracked weight and lifestyle changes in subjects every four years, and found that participants gained an average of 3.35 pounds every four years.

Researchers managed to pin an average four-year weight gain to individual foods. Potato chips caused a 1.69 gain over four years, sugary beverages added a pound and processed meats added 0.95 pounds.

When it comes to snack foods, what do you eat regularly that you know you shouldn’t?

TV and soda: Small habits cause excess pounds [Reuters via MSNBC]

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  1. AstroPig7 says:

    It might just be the article, but I don’t see any mention of exercise. Diet alone will not keep you healthy forever.

    • chefboyardee says:

      “And when people increased their physical activity, they tended to gain less weight during the study period.”

      • obits3 says:

        Try my new “Think yourself thin!” program. Guaranteed to help you lose weight!*

        *When accompanied by diet and exercise.

      • AstroPig7 says:

        This is what I get for scanning for “exercise” without considering alternatives. Regardless, any food will eventually make you fatter if you don’t use it with physical exertion. I’m not certain what the point of this article is.

    • My lawyer made me change my screen name says:

      A healthy diet and no exercise will increase your lifespan more than a terrible diet and an exercise regimen. Diet is [almost] everything!

      • OutPastPluto says:

        Longevity is more about genetics. If you are active, you will age much more gracefully regardless of what you eat. Your muscles tend to atrophy as you age and this takes a toll and makes you more prone to painful and crippling injuries.

    • myCatCracksMeUp says:

      The full research showed that even after taking the amount of exercise and total caloric intake into account, consumption of certain foods cause people to gain weight.

      So if I and my identical twin start the study weighing the same amount, and over a period of years we eat the same number of total calories, and we exercise the exact same amount, but one of us eats a large amount of chips as part of our calories and the other one doesn’t, the one who ate the chips will gain more weight than the one who didn’t.

      WHAT you eat does make a difference in whether you gain weight or not, and how much you gain. It’s not just a matter of eating x amount of calories and burning x amount of calories.

      • Kate says:

        According to the vast expertise of all the know-it-alls that ever posted on any article about dieting, that can’t possibly be true. It’s all calories in and out, right?

        • ChuckECheese says:

          No it’s really not calories-in-and-out. Aspie logic thinks everything is binary, when there are often many factors involved in a given situation. Human metabolism is complex and things like fuel type and individual physiological functioning can have a huge impact. Thyroid disease for instance causes changes in metabolism that make one either gain or lose weight, based on the specific problem. Also, as this study shows, different foodstuffs, even with the same caloric content, are metabolized differently (and probably also metabolized differently by different people).

  2. globe999 says:

    Permanent pounds? I get that, in general, people get fatter over time, but that is typically due to a slower metabolism and a more sedentary lifestyle.

    • Turn-n-Burn says:

      I don’t get the permanent either, you mean they can NEVER lose the weight? Badly worded.

    • Althechemist5 says:

      You will NEVER lose the weight. No matter how much you exercise, starve, or even if you get lipo, or lose a limb. o_o Magic chips.

    • AstroPig7 says:

      Maybe they mean permanent when no other relevant factors change, i.e. your physical activity and diet don’t otherwise change.

    • Hi_Hello says:

      yea, the only thing I would consider permanent weight is when you grow taller and have more bone mass or something.

    • Moosehawk says:

      I think slower metabolism is a shitty excuse for why people gain weight. People need to get real. You aren’t gaining weight because of bad genes, you’re gaining weight because you eat like shit, form bad habits and never exercise.

      I would lean (get it? lean?) more towards the sedentary lifestyle than the slower metabolism.

      • Awesome McAwesomeness says:

        Oh, so the 53 lbs. I lost in 4 months AFTER I started taking thyroid meds was a big coinky dink huh? Because you know it all and weight can never be caused by anything other than sheer laziness and pigging out. I am getting so tired of the know-it-all fat haters.

        • Foodie92 says:

          It’s just ignorance. Good job helping to educate ignorant people. I did my best as well.

        • lordargent says:

          Were you replying to me? I can’t tell due to the weird indentation.

          In any event, if you are, I think you need to read and actually understand my entire post before you go flying off the handle.

          • Foodie92 says:

            Sisterfunkymonkey’s comment was in this thread before yours was. Regardless, I personally think his/her comment was no where near “flying off the handle.”

      • Foodie92 says:

        Actually, there are individuals who eat well and exercise and still gain weight due to metabolism disorders. An example of such a disorder is hypothyroidism. There is treatment for this disorder but stabilizing the medication dosage can take quite a while. Therefore, even if an individual knows s/he has the disorder and is actively involved in treating it, s/he can still gain weight or be unable to lose it (even though s/he is eating the recommended bare minimum of calories and is exercising far above the recommended amount). It sounds like perhaps you should look this disorder up before posting any more judgmental comments.

        • lordargent says:

          And those types of disorders

          1) Affect a small subset of the population (

          2) Of those, there are varying levels of severity, from (barely noticeable) to (no matter what I do I can’t lose weight).

          3) Much of the weight gained is due to water retention (which is why exercise doesn’t help), you exercise and lose fat weight, but just gain it back in the form of water. And you can’t burn water.

          4) Many can be treated via synthetic hormones.

          This is an oversimplified view of course, but the point is, the amount of people claiming it as the reason for them being overweight is several orders lower than the number of people that actually have severe untreatable thyroid issues. It just does a big disservice to the small number of people that actually have it.

          • lordargent says:

            Also

            http://www.thyroid.org/patients/brochures/Thyroid_and_Weight.pdf

            “What is the relationship between hypothyroidism and weight
            gain?
            Since the BMR in the patient with hypothyroidism (see Hypothyroidism
            brochure) is decreased, an underactive thyroid is generally associated
            with some weight gain. The weight gain is often greater in those
            individuals with more severe hypothyroidism. However, the decrease
            in BMR due to hypothyroidism is usually much less dramatic than the
            marked increase seen in hyperthyroidism, leading to more modest
            alterations in weight due to the underactive thyroid. The cause of the
            weight gain in hypothyroid individuals is also complex, and not always
            related to excess fat accumulation. Most of the extra weight gained in
            hypothyroid individuals is due to excess accumulation of salt and water.
            Massive weight gain is rarely associated with hypothyroidism. In general,
            5-10 pounds of body weight may be attributable to the thyroid
            ,
            depending on the severity of the hypothyroidism. Finally, if weight gain
            is the only symptom of hypothyroidism that is present, it is less likely
            that the weight gain is solely due to the thyroid.”

            - so can we finally put this hypothyroidism argument to rest?

            • Foodie92 says:

              I’m not arguing with you. In fact, you reiterated the exact point I was trying to make, which was that weight gain can be attributable to hypothyroidism. Your source, “an underactive thyroid is generally associated with some weight gain.” Another important point was also provided by your source, “In general, 5-10 pounds of body weight may be attributable to the thyroid depending on the severity of the hypothyroidism.” Notice the word “general.” Presumably, there are outliers, which represent individuals whose weights are much more affected by hypothyroidism. For an example, see SisterFunkyMonkey’s anecdote.

              What your source didn’t address in your snipit is hypothyroidism’s interference with weight loss. For example, if an individual was overweight due to poor choices instead of merely his/her medical condition and s/he tried to lose weight with diet and exercise, s/he is at a greater disadvantage than an individual without the disorder. The disorder didn’t cause s/he to necessarily gain the weight, but it still makes it more difficult for s/he to lose it.

              Regardless, Moosehawk’s comment was entirely ignorant. Not everyone who claims s/he has a slow metabolism is lazy and eats crap. Some people are genuinely disadvantaged due to medical conditions. The negative stereotypes that are projected onto these people are entirely inappropriate. That’s why I posted an example of where Moosehawk was wrong.

          • Foodie92 says:

            To your list:

            1) Affect a small subset of the population

            This is absolutely true. The problem is that people who claim to have a slow metabolism (including those with a legitimate medical condition) are often not taken seriously and are subjected to the same stigmatization and negative stereotypes that the entire overweight population faces (i.e. that they’re lazy and eat crap) even though those with legitimate medical conditions may be eating right and exercising. An example of this is Moosehawk’s insulting comment, which is what I was addressing in my original post.

            2) Of those, there are varying levels of severity, from (barely noticeable) to (no matter what I do I can’t lose weight).

            Also true. I think it’s incredibly unfair to those on the “no matter what I do I can’t lose weight” side of the spectrum to be lumped together with everyone else who is overweight. Unless you have access to an individual’s medical history, you don’t know the reason why that individual is overweight. You should give people the benefit of the doubt. Moosehawk apparently does not agree with me on this one. That’s why I posted an example of why what s/he wrote wasn’t always true.

            3) Much of the weight gained is due to water retention (which is why exercise doesn’t help), you exercise and lose fat weight, but just gain it back in the form of water. And you can’t burn water.

            I’m not sure the point you’re trying to make on this one. Water and salt retention can add to a person’s bloated appearance (ever seen a swollen pregnant women directly before and after giving birth?), so it doesn’t really mater if the weight is water weight or fat weight.

            4) Many can be treated via synthetic hormones.

            Also true. I addressed this in my original comment. “There is treatment for this disorder but stabilizing the medication dosage can take quite a while. Therefore, even if an individual knows s/he has the disorder and is actively involved in treating it, s/he can still gain weight or be unable to lose it (even though s/he is eating the recommended bare minimum of calories and is exercising far above the recommended amount”

            I would agree that there are overweight individuals who are overweight and don’t have a good reason for it. I also think it is entirely inappropriate to lump together these people with those who have legitimate medical conditions. Moosehawk made no allowance for those with medical conditions. Again, that’s why I posted an example of how s/he could be wrong in some cases.

      • OutPastPluto says:

        No. YOU SLOW DOWN as you age.

        If you eat a constant amount and exercise a constant amount then you will gain weight because the math of the situation will eventually catch up to you.

  3. JennyCupcakes misses her grandson says:

    I want to try those potato chips.

    Anyone ever have Magnum Ice Cream bars? Like srsly, if you’re worried about gaining weight, do NOT freaking eat them because they will consume your life.

    • edcrowle says:

      I thought the same thing about those chips… screw the weight gain!

    • Blueskylaw says:

      The Snickersâ„¢ Ice Cream Bars are seriously good too*, assuming you like Snickers bars.

      If anyone from Mars Incorporated is reading this, you know where to send my coupons.

      *Not a remunerated spokesman

      • JennyCupcakes misses her grandson says:

        That’s funny you said that, because I do not care for Snickers bars proper, but I do love the Snickers ice cream.

        Doesn’t transfer well to Twix though… shame.

    • MutantMonkey says:

      The chips are tasty. I recommend them.

      • Jfielder says:

        Apparently Lay’s thinks that people in michigan have no desire to eat Cajun herb and spice chips…. because they are not sold around here, and that makes me a saaad panda.

        • JennyCupcakes misses her grandson says:

          That’s how I am with my favorite brand, Zapp’s. They’re based out of Louisiana. The closest place I’ve seen them was at World Market/Cost Plus and Potbelly. They don’t have my favorite flavors though, so I always special order them online. Totally worth it.

          • axhandler1 says:

            I used to get Zapp’s all the time when I was going to school down there, they’re so good! Cajun Crawdad was my favorite.

        • jefeloco says:

          I’m glad that I live in an area that has a relatively high Mexican population because Doritos sells their Tapatio flavored chips here.

          The only thing in the world better than Tapatio is Cholula and I have yet to see chips flavored with that sauce of the gods.

          • ChuckECheese says:

            I just bought Doritos in Mexico. They had ‘cheese,’ ‘adobada’ and ‘pizza’ flavors. I got the pizza flavor. They were this salty, vaguely oregano-y flavor. I think U.S. Doritos taste better.

    • Chasing Headless Chickens says:

      If I were stuck in a traffic jam and decided to go prancing around on the top of cars to get to the Magnum truck, I’d be arrested. But she’s hot, so I guess she gets a pass. But then, I’d probably throw in “I am a Jedi!” and that would probably do me in.

      Also, why do I keep thinking that commercial is for condoms? Freudian?

      • JennyCupcakes misses her grandson says:

        Not just you, my friend! Everyone I talk to about them cannot get past the condom thing.

        Personally, it makes me think of Magnum PI.

  4. Blueskylaw says:

    So in essence, the more you eat over a period of time, the more weight you gain?

    Who woulda thunk it?

    • Fubish says: I don't know anything about it, but it seems to me... says:

      No – it’s WHAT you eat.

      • Blueskylaw says:

        If you read the article even closer, you will see they mention “poor eating habits…will slowly add permanent pounds over the years”

        Whether it’s potato chips or ground turkey, if you eat 500 calories a day more from either of them, you will slowly gain weight over time.

        • myCatCracksMeUp says:

          You’re wrong.

          The full research showed that even after taking the amount of exercise and total caloric intake into account, consumption of certain foods cause people to gain weight.

          So if I and my identical twin start the study weighing the same amount, and over a period of years we eat the same number of total calories, and we exercise the exact same amount, but one of us eats a large amount of chips as part of our calories and the other one doesn’t, the one who ate the chips will gain more weight than the one who didn’t.

          WHAT you eat does make a difference in whether you gain weight or not, and how much you gain. It’s not just a matter of eating x amount of calories and burning x amount of calories.

          • OutPastPluto says:

            No. It’s like that silly 7up ad. It’s portion control.

            Do you know how small a single serving of snack chips is? Do you really expect that most people limit themselves to that? No. Snack foods lead to snacking. Snacking is the underling problem. It doesn’t help when it is some calorie dense food.

            It will ultimately boil down to raw math and a big pile of empty calories.

  5. AlteredBeast (blaming the OP one article at a time.) says:

    My weakness is ice cream.

    Not that crave it, or MUST have it, but that when I sit down to eat it I tend to go through too much. Back when I gained some weight last year (which I just lost, and then some, thanks to a liquid diet) I could go through a whole pint of Ben and Jerry’s in one evening (not one sitting though).

    So now, while it may cost more money per scoop, I get those tiny single serving Hagen Daz ice creams. I’m not typically one for buying items at a higher cost because they are repackaged into smaller calorie portions, but in this case it helps me.

    • JennyCupcakes misses her grandson says:

      This.

      I can down a friggin’ gallon of ice cream in no time flat. Whether or not I pay the price in 15 mins is uncertain. A crapshoot, if you will.

    • dulcinea47 says:

      My mom drives to Sonic or Dairy Queen for an ice cream cone almost every single day, b/c she can’t keep it in the house at all.

    • pecan 3.14159265 says:

      I bought a pint of Ben and Jerry’s for the first time in probably a year. It’ll take me at least two weeks to get through it. When I was a kid, I loved ice cream, but as I got older I stopped eating it as much and learned moderation. Now I eat some few months to get my fix, then I don’t eat it at all for a while.

      • Awesome McAwesomeness says:

        It takes me a month to eat one. I have a tablespoon or two every few days and leave it at that. It satisfies my sweet tooth and I don’t feel guilty.

  6. AmateurD says:

    Over enough time, even salad will add up. DON’T EAT THAT KETCHUP PACKET, OVER 180 YEARS THEY’LL MAKE YOU 17 OUNCES HEAVIER!

    I’m not sure how much actual science is here. Seems like they just reiterated what everyone already knows about junk food and just but a scary “NEVER HAVE A SINGLE POTATO CHIP EVER!” spin on it. Funny, the moderation and exercise route has been working just fine for me lately.

  7. Nobody can say "Teehee" with a straight face says:

    Maybe I missed it, but the article seemed to miss a critical point: Did the people REPLACE another food with chips/sugary drinks, or were they just added on?

    I know the sugary drink / chips / desserts leave you feeling incredibly less full for their caloric value, so most times they’re “add-ons”.

    • Kate says:

      Actually, I find potato chips far more satiating than fruit.

      Straight carbohydrates don’t do a thing for me, I could be eating grass for all the good it does my hunger. I have to eat some protein or fat with them to make a difference.

  8. Snaptastic says:

    I survived on junk food through college and my short military career. I weigh exactly the same at 30 as I have since I was 14 (give/take 5 lbs)…of course, the weight distribution was a bit different until I completed puberty.

    I will credit that to physical activity.

    • Kate says:

      I credit it to good genes and luck. My ex who was never fat used to boast that he made it up in exercise, but I never observed him doing much. He used to eat all kinds of horrible things and wouldn’t eat vegetables or salads.

  9. cameronl says:

    “Study contradicts the notion that all foods are good for you in moderation”

    ??? Never EVER had I heard that small amounts of junk food are good for you in moderation.
    The closest I’ve heard is that “bad” foods are harmless in moderation. But actually GOOD for you? Never.

  10. JulesNoctambule says:

    Average of 3.35 pounds? I’ll be keeping my ice cream and tortilla chips (not together; eww). If I lived off steamed kale and brown rice I’d hate life too much to care how thin I was or wasn’t, so I’ll stick with moderation.

  11. pecan 3.14159265 says:

    Nutella. I am in horror each time I eat toast because I realize I’m eating 400 nearly empty calories of barely any nutritional content.

  12. TooManyHobbies says:

    I found that cutting HFCS out of my diet totally changed things. When I was drinking 2x 1/2 liter of HFCS sweetened soda a day, I had extreme blood sugar swings. When I got hungry, I got REALLY REALLY hungry. Shaking, weak, unable-to-think, I gotta have food NOW kind of hungry. I was never able to reduce my food intake to the level I wanted because when I get like that I’m not rational and I will just eat whatever I can get, and probably more than I need.

    I switched to a diet soda (I think sugar-sweetened would have had this effect too but it’s harder to find) and a week or two later I noticed that when I got hungry, I was just hungry, and was still able to function fine and think OK. It wasn’t all-consuming hunger, and it was easy enough to just wait an hour or two before eating.

    I’ve now lost 35 pounds and have gone from 5 pounds into the “overweight” range on BMI to smack in the center of the weight range. I’m not even trying all that hard, though I do exercise vigorously every day (25 miles of bike riding per day to work and back – but I’d been doing this for 5 years with no weight loss before). This has taken about 2.5 months.

    All I’ve done is to wait until a set time to have my meals rather than snacking all the time, the switch to diet soda, and I only put about 2/3 as much food in my leftover container for lunch.

    As I said, with the HFCS (a habit that goes back 30 years for me), I had been stable at 5 to 15 pounds into the overweight BMI for many years even with exercise, and several attempts to lose weight had been unsuccessful. Losing the HFCS has made it easy.

    • TooManyHobbies says:

      FWIW, I do still eat junk food, and I’m still losing weight. I like chocolate and potato chips, and I have both every day. I also try to get a little more protein than I had in the past (I have a chicken or fish sandwich for dinner fairly often).

      • Awesome McAwesomeness says:

        I cut sodas and lost almost nothing. I drank 3-4 per day too. I did not replace the calories either. I do have 1 diet soda per day. So, apparently, calories in/out doesn’t really pan out as clearly as some people profess. If it did, I would lose about a lb a week from cutting sodas, and that isn’t happening.

        • TooManyHobbies says:

          It may depend on the person. As I said, I don’t think that my weight loss stemmed directly from cutting the soda. What it came from was the fact that when I was drinking soda with HFCS, when I got hungry, I got absolutely ravenously hungry. Irrationally hungry. Literally shaking from a blood sugar, I can’t think straight, give me food NOW if I have to steal it hungry. I’d eat way more than I had to.

          After dropping it, I just get hungry, and it’s not a problem to ignore it. I don’t eat as much, and that’s the direct cause of the weight loss. But I’ve tried that before and it simply wasn’t possible when I was drinking soda with lots of HFCS.

          It may be that different people react differently. Or it may be that some people eat lots of processed foods that also contains HFCS. Soda is about the only source of HFCS that I consume.

  13. lchen says:

    I keep toying with the idea of cutting out all sugar. I don’t eat fast food or drink sodas (or alcohol) and I don’t eat meat (but some fish), my one vice is desserts. It’s hard to drop, I have been cutting back.

  14. MichiganWolverine2011 says:

    This is another one of those silly studies. Here are facts. If you burn more calories than you take in, you will lose weight. If you eat 3000 calories of broccoli and only burn 2000 calories you will gain weight. The difference between eating all broccoli or “healthy” foods is the nutrition level and hunger factor. Broccoli is not calorie dense, so 3000 calories of it would require you to eat a ton (not literal) of it.
    Most diets fail because they are about denial instead of balance and enjoying food. I suggest anybody looking to lose weight keep a calorie/nutrition diary. Find out the weight you want to be at, and eat accordingly. Instead off two scoops of ice cream get one. Instead of a whole bag of chips, eat a dozen, instead of the 12 ounce steak get the 8 ounce version. It is not so much about what you eat, but about the quantity.

    • myCatCracksMeUp says:

      The problem is that certain foods cause changes to your metabolism. So if you consume 3000 calories of brocolli you need a certain amount of exercise to burn off the 3000 calories and maintain your weight.

      If you consume 3000 calories of sugar and HFCS and processed grains, you need to to exercise MORE than you did before when you were eating just brocolli.

      • OutPastPluto says:

        Yes. And those different foods effect different people differently.

        What works for one person can be a total disaster for the next one.

        Also “metabolism” is just something that drives eating habits and your eventual numerical grand total. “Metabolism” makes self-discipline more difficult if you make choices that aren’t appropriate for you in particular.

    • lordargent says:
      • lordargent says:

        Also, an interesting excerpt from that.

        200 calories of celery weighs ~ 1425 grams.

        1425 grams == 3.14 pounds.

        So eating 200 calories worth of celery would temporarily increase your weight by over 3 pounds. But it’s almost all water and fiber so almost all 3 pounds of that would have to come back out. I’ll leave the rest up to your own imagination.

        /For comparison, 3.14 pounds of fat would be 10,990 calories.

  15. Nick says:

    I just want to point out something: As a frequent consumer of diet soda, I pay attention to the many media stories that portray diet soda as evil. In fact, there are TONS of articles out there that go on and on about how diet soda will cause you to gain weight.

    Now, we have a large controlled study of eating habits and weight changes. And guess what? This study (see Figure 1 in the actual paper) shows that diet soda consumption is associated with long term weight LOSS–moreso than any other beverage studied. In fact, in the sample of men, diet soda was associated with as much weight loss as eating vegetables. But, of course, that aspect of this study is being conveniently glossed over by the media.

    • TooManyHobbies says:

      See my post above. HFCS sweetened soda turns out to have been my culprit for decades. Switching to diet soda was the answer for me.

      I tried just quitting soda, but it turns out I really need caffeine to concentrate to do my job, and I absolutely can’t stand coffee, tea, or anything else made with dead leaves. Makes me wretch and always has.

      • FaustianSlip says:

        I used to drink leaded soda as a teenager (which is right about when my weight started to go up- I was a skinny kid), but these days, it just seems like a waste of calories and way too sweet. Now I drink diet, although even that has tapered off somewhat, though I wish I could cut soda out entirely. Chips and other salty carbs, though… man, those have always been my Achilles heel.

      • OutPastPluto says:

        Try buying a better brand of Tea.

        What gets sold as tea in the US would not be considered fit for human consumption in other countries.

    • lchen says:

      Instead of diet soda, you could’ve been drinking something with health benefits, like green tea. The reasons why diet soda is not considered “healthy” is because it doesn’t contain any nutrients and some studies show it decreases your bone density over time (maybe that can account for some weight lost there).

  16. Foodie92 says:

    Actually, there are individuals who eat well and exercise but still gain weight due to metabolism disorders. An example of such a disorder is hypothyroidism. There is treatment for this condition but stabilizing the medication dosage can take quite a while. Therefore, even if an individual knows s/he has it and is actively in the process of treating it, s/he may still gain weight or be unable to lose it (even though s/he is eating the recommended bare minimum of calories and is exercising far above the recommended amount). You should perhaps read up on this disorder and not be so judgmental.

  17. Awesome McAwesomeness says:

    You left off the fact that UNprocessed meat also added about a lb. Basically, between processed and unprocessed meats, it adds about 2 lbs.Over 20 years, that is 10 lbs.

  18. MercuryPDX says:

    You know studies have shown that with the right grant funding, most studies will be proven wrong every couple of years.

    All good things in moderation.

  19. RogueWarrior65 says:

    Yeah, too bad most people put on a pound a year once they reach their 30s no matter what they eat.