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  • Taylor Richter, RDN, LD

Calories vs. Quality: How Your Food Choices Impact Your Daily Life

In today's fast-paced world, our dietary choices are often shaped by convenience. Processed foods, with their easy availability and quick preparation times, have become a mainstay in many households. Ultra-processed foods or foods that are made with stabilizers, colorings and other additives have created a classification of food that has very little nutrients while being very calorie dense. A recent study conducted at the NIH Clinical Center has given us reason to pause and reconsider the impact of processed foods on our daily lives.

The Study: A Closer Look

The study in question involved 20 weight-stable adults, averaging around 31 years of age and with a BMI of 27 kg/m². The participants were divided into two groups, one that ate ultra-processed foods and one that ate unprocessed foods. Both groups were offered the same number of calories each day, but they could choose to eat as much or as little as they wanted. The diets were meticulously designed to be similar in fat, carbohydrate and protein composition. Even though the study only went on for 14 days and the results were staggering.

The Findings: Processed vs. Unprocessed Diets

Participants in the ultra-processed diet group consumed, on average, an additional 508 calories per day compared to the unprocessed diet. The extra calories primarily came from increased carbohydrate and fat intake, while protein intake remained relatively stable. This increase in energy intake directly correlated with weight changes; participants gained an average of 0.9 kg (approximately 2 lbs) on the ultra-processed diet, whereas those on the unprocessed diet lost an average of 0.9 kg (approximately 2 lbs).

What makes these findings even more intriguing are the differences between the two diets beyond just calories consumed. The ultra-processed meals contained significantly higher levels of added sugar, increased saturated fat, less fiber and a less favorable ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids compared to the unprocessed meals. This stark divergence in nutritional quality highlights the significance of our food choices, not just in terms of calories but also in terms of the overall nutritional profile.

Impact on Weight Management:

The most immediate application of this study is in the realm of weight management. It underscores the importance of being mindful of our food choices, especially when it comes to processed foods. By reducing our consumption of ultra-processed foods and opting for unprocessed, whole foods instead, we can better control our calorie intake and support our weight management goals.

Understanding Calorie Quality:

This study teaches us that not all calories are created equal. It's not just about counting calories but also about the source of those calories. Ultra-processed foods tend to be calorie-dense, and the excessive consumption of calories from these sources can easily lead us away from our health goals. On the other hand, unprocessed foods are often nutrient-dense, providing essential vitamins, minerals, and fiber along with their calories.

Fiber Matters:

The study also emphasized the importance of fiber in our diets. Ultra-processed diets were lower in fiber and had to be supplemented during this study, while unprocessed diets were rich in this essential nutrient. Fiber not only aids in digestion but also helps us feel full and satisfied. Incorporating fiber-rich foods like beans, fruits, and vegetables into our daily meals can contribute to better overall health and weight management.

Omega Fatty Acids:

The study touched on the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids, with ultra-processed diets showing a less favorable balance. Omega-3 fatty acids, found in foods like fatty fish and flaxseeds, are known for their heart-healthy benefits. Considering this, it's wise to incorporate omega-3-rich foods into our diets for better cardiovascular health.

In Conclusion:

The NIH Clinical Center's study on processed vs. unprocessed diets offers a valuable glimpse into the direct impact of our food choices on our daily lives. It reinforces the idea that what we eat matters not only in terms of calories but also in terms of the quality of those calories. By reducing our consumption of ultra-processed foods, being mindful of added sugars, prioritizing fiber-rich foods, and balancing our macronutrients, we can take significant steps toward better weight management and overall health.

This study serves as a reminder that our daily choices in the kitchen can have far-reaching consequences for our well-being. It's not about depriving ourselves of the foods we enjoy but about making informed choices that align with our health goals. As we navigate the complex landscape of modern nutrition, let's use studies like this one as a guiding light toward a healthier and happier life.


Hall, K. D., Ayuketah, A., Brychta, R., Cai, H., Cassimatis, T., Chen, K. Y., Chung, S. T., Costa, E., Courville, A., Darcey, V., Fletcher, L. A., Forde, C. G., Gharib, A. M., Guo, J., Howard, R., Joseph, P. V., McGehee, S., Ouwerkerk, R., Raisinger, K., … Zhou, M. (2019). Ultra-processed diets cause excess calorie intake and weight gain: An inpatient randomized controlled trial of AD Libitum Food Intake. Cell Metabolism, 30(1).

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