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Crisps, potatoes and soft drinks are the most fattening

If you want to lose weight or maintain a healthy weight you are more likely to succeed if you avoid crisps, potatoe products and soft drinks as much as possible. But including yoghurt, nuts and fruit in your diet raises your chances of success, writes the epidemiologist Dariush Mozaffarian of Harvard Medical School in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Mozaffarian gathered his data from three studies in which over 120,000 American men and women participated. The names will be familiar to you: the Nurses' Health Study I and II [NHS, NHS II] and the Health Professionals Follow-up Study [HPFS]. People working in the health-care sector were followed closely for many years in these studies.

Crisps, potatoes and soft drinks are the most fattening
Mozaffarian was able to calculate how much weight the average participant had gained in a four-year period, and the eating and lifestyle habits the weight gain was associated with. This enabled him to construct the figures below.

The average participant put on 1.5 kg every four years. Each daily portion of crisps was responsible for an increase in weight over a four-year period of 0.76 kg, each daily portion of potatoes and potatoe products for a weight gain of 0.58 kg, each soft drink serving for a gain of 0.45 kg and each serving of frankfurter or processed meat for a weight gain of 0.42 kg.

Participants that ate large amounts of yoghurt, fruit and vegetables on the other hand lost weight more easily. These are products that promote weight loss.

Crisps, potatoes and soft drinks are the most fattening

Crisps, potatoes and soft drinks are the most fattening

Exercise was a slimming factor, but not such a big one, as the figure above shows. The weight increase of men and women who got the most exercise [Quintile 5] was less than a kilogram less than the men and women who exercised least [Quintile 1]. Weight gain is apparently the result of eating too much, and less the result of exercising too little. Put it this way: companies like Mars and Kraft bear more responsibility for the obesity epidemic than companies like Apple and Toyota.

The biggest weight-gain factor that Mozaffarian discovered was actually stopping smoking. People who stop smoking gain 2.3 kg in four years.

Crisps, potatoes and soft drinks are the most fattening

"Our findings suggest that both individual and population-based strategies to help people consume fewer calories may be most effective when particular foods and beverages are targeted for decreased (or increased) consumption", the researchers conclude.

It's worth placing this study in the context of a disagreement between two camps in the nutrition world. One camp says that overweight is linked to 'eating pattern' and not to 'individual foods'. So there's nothing wrong with soft drinks as long as you don't drink too much and also get lots of exercise, argue the nutritionists funded by the sugar industry and Coca-Cola. So this lot say in the same breath there's therefore no point getting rid of vending machines selling soft drinks in school.

Nutritionists not funded by the food industry come to a different conclusion remarkably often. They argue that there are 'bad' foods. It's the industrially produced foods, containing large quantities of easily absorbed carbohydrates and bad fats, that tempt people into overeating. The study referred to here comes from this camp.

N Engl J Med. 2011 Jun 23;364(25):2392-404.

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