A new large-scale study has backed growing evidence that processed foods are driving growing rates of obesity.

Research by the University of Sydney supports the theory that as the body favours protein the most, people who consume more highly processed low-protein foods have to eat more to meet their body’s demand for protein. This means they overeat fats and carbohydrates.

The researchers conducted a 12-month study of data from almost 10,000 Australians and found that those who ate smaller amounts of protein as part of their first meal of the day increased their food intake at meals throughout the rest of the day.

In comparison, people who ate the recommended amount of protein in their first meal did not increase their food intake – in fact, it decreased.

The researchers reported on the mean percentages of energy derived from different sources:

Professor David Raubenheimer, the Leonard Ullmann Chair in Nutritional Ecology at the School of Life and Environmental Sciences, said: “It’s increasingly clear that our bodies eat to satisfy a protein target.

“But the problem is that the food in Western diets has increasingly less protein. So, you have to consume more of it to reach your protein target, which effectively elevates your daily energy intake.

“Humans, like many other species, have a stronger appetite for protein than for the main energy-providing nutrients of fats and carbohydrates. That means that if the protein in our diet is diluted with fats and carbohydrates, we will eat more energy to get the protein that our bodies crave.”

Protein, which is used to repair or make new cells in the body, can be found in meats, milk, fish, eggs, soy, legumes, beans, and grains including wheat germ and quinoa.

Lead author Dr Amanda Grech said: “This study is important as it builds on work showing that people do seek out protein. And it confirms that, at a population level, as the proportion of energy from protein increases in the diet, people eat less fats and carbohydrates.”

Professor Raubenheimer added: “The results support an integrated ecological and mechanistic explanation for obesity, in which low-protein, highly processed foods lead to higher energy intake in response to a nutrient imbalance driven by a dominant appetite for protein.

“It supports a central role for protein in the obesity epidemic, with significant implications for global health.”

The study has been published in the journal Obesity.

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