Dr. Birdie's Take on the 'Potato Chips Will Make You Fat' Study

By , SparkPeople Blogger

You may have heard about yet another study that is trying to tell us that we have really bad habits that are making us fat.  It seems like just about every day, there is a new study about Americans and weight gain--some of which contradict each other!

This recent study was published by the New England Journal of Medicine last month, and I have seen and heard discussed in just about every news outlet and journal. 

One of the headlines that caught my attention was something like “Potato chips make you fat!” Many of the stories just list the particular foods that were singled out by the study as potential weight-gain culprits--without any explanation of the behaviors associated with those foods.  What most stories have failed to point out is that this study was not intended to be used as a guideline for weight loss. 

This study was an analysis of more than 100,000 adults who were not obese and who were otherwise healthy.  The analysis revealed that these adults gained an average of 0.8 pounds per year.  Lifestyle habits and weights were tracked every 4 years for 12 to 20 years.  Because they were not obese when the study began, the study was able to detect some lifestyle factors that were associated with greater weight gain.  Some particular food items were identified, which is what makes this study noteworthy. 

Remember that these patients were not obese when the study began so this study is better suited for discussing weight gain prevention rather than weight loss.  Seasoned SparkPeople members will find that they are already practicing the majority of these healthy habits and limiting (or eliminating) these foods. 

Here are some of the dietary choices that the study concluded are associated with weight gain over time:

1. Potato chips.  Regular consumption of potato chips was found to have an association with weight gain over time--no surprise there. 

There's a reason (plenty of reasons, actually) why potato chips are a quintessential American snack:
  • They are easy to munch on while watching TV and are perfect for mindless eating.
  • They're sold everywhere! Grabbing a bag from the gas station is easy when you are hungry. We eat them at birthday parties, office parties, during holidays.  We take them just about anywhere. 
  • They're cheap! Grocery stores frequently sell giant bags at buy one get one free.  
  • They also come in little bags that you can pack in your child’s lunch. 
  • They also come in multiple flavors. 

    For every reason why potato chips are easy to eat, there's a reason why we should limit how often we eat them. (Potato chips are, without a doubt, not a food we should eat regularly!)
  • Too much fat and the wrong kind of fats (we should never eat trans fats, which are artery-clogging and no good for you!).
  • Too much sodium.
  • Almost no protein or fiber.  

    It is easy to understand why regular consumption of potato chips will lead you to gain weight over time.  So, stop buying them.  It’s so hard to pass up buy one get one free, but there’s no such thing as a free lunch (or snack!).  You will pay with larger clothes and clogged arteries. 
2. Potatoes.  Can you believe that potatoes, which we know to be a nutritious vegetable, made the list?   Well, when you dress them up with butter, cheese, bacon bits, and sour cream, it makes sense.  As you start tracking your food using SparkPeople, you will notice that while most vegetables give you plenty of volume for few calories, potatoes are a denser vegetable. In fact, they are considered to be a serving of starch or carbohydrates rather than a serving of vegetables. Though most vegetables (especially green and/or leafy ones) can be eaten in almost unlimited quantities, potatoes are not among that group, as this study confirms. Potatoes can be a part of a healthy meal plan. Ditch the fatty add-ons and reach for salsa, hummus, fresh herbs or fat-free Greek yogurt instead. Chef Meg often shares tips about serving pasta sauce, stews and other dishes over a baked potato. Try it!

3. Sugar-sweetened beveragesCalories in the form of liquids should be limited.  One can of non-diet soda contains about 140 calories and over 30 grams of sugar with zero protein or fiber.  These drinks are on a fast track to laying down fat on your body.  Many people who are carbohydrate-sensitive may experience a spike in insulin followed by a drop in glucose levels making them crave even more sugar which can cascade them into a vicious cycle of hunger.  They should be eliminated altogether or limited to a very occasional indulgence. A good rule of thumb: Consider a soda to be a treat, not a beverage used for hydration. Remember that one 20-ounce soda daily will add up to an extra 26 pounds a year.

4. Unprocessed red meats (beef, lamb, or pork that have not been cured or treated with chemicals).  The problems arise when you eat what's served to you--half pound burger or 20-ounce strip steak, anyone?--instead of a proper portion (2-3 ounces). Also, take a look at the types of meals you're preparing with red meat: Cheeseburgers and fries, T-bone steak and mashed potatoes, prime rib au jus... Visit SparkRecipes for healthier red-meat recipes, and choose leaner cuts of meat, along with smaller portions, as part of a sensible meal plan..  

5. Processed meats.   This category includes more sources of meat, all of which contain loads of salt and chemicals to preserve them. The reasons they lead to weight gain are pretty easy to figure out. First, it's a question of portion control again. Think: Footlong hotdogs, submarine sandwiches bigger than your head, heaping servings of bacon. Reason #2: Don’t forget what we usually do with processed meats.  Have you ever had fried bologna on white bread with mayo and cheese? I have! Chili hot dogs? Bacon-wrapped anything? You get the picture. These, like sodas, should be a treat--not a regular part of your meal plan.  

6. Refined grains.  Refined grains are grain products that have been modified and stripped of fiber and most nutrients.  The removal of the fiber makes it especially easy for your body to process and store the food as fat, and the absence of fiber means we're hungrier sooner than if we had chosen complex carbs.  I’m sure you have heard that the “white stuff” is bad.  This study shows us that people who consume fewer refined grains weigh less over time. 

Believe it! At SparkPeople, we stress the importance of avoiding processed grains and the benefits of incorporating whole grains in your daily food consumption.  Leave the white flour, white pasta, and white rice for special occasions. Choose whole wheat pasta, bread, and cereals, and brown rice.

Other factors that were associated weight gain according to the study included excessive TV watching, smoking, less than 6 hours of sleep or greater than 8 hours sleep and alcohol use. 

Factors associated with less weight gain over time include increased consumption of fruits, vegetables, nuts, whole grains, and yogurt. 

I believe that the best healthy lifestyle plan for you is the one that you can stick with forever. (Sound familiar?)

But, as the study shows, the types of foods that you consume matter as well.  This latest basically confirmed what we already knew and is already stressed in "The Spark."

Learning to change unhealthy habits takes time.  Sometimes years!  I’m almost 4 years into my lifestyle change and I’m still struggling with getting ahold on some habits that need to be changed or improved.  But, through my journey I have found that sticking with the plan is much easier when you follow many of the principles presented.  Never give up and keep sparking, everyone!
Are any of these foods a regular part of your diet? What changes have you made to improve your diet?

From the dailySpark Editor:
Birdie's appearance on the final "Oprah" weight-loss episode will air again on Monday, July 25. Be sure to tune in!

Birdie was recently interviewed by a Florida magazine. Check out the mention of SparkPeople!

Dr. Birdie Varnedore, M.D., is happy to offer her expertise to the SparkPeople community; however, she cannot offer specific medical advice to dailySpark readers. Please do not share confidential medical information here. If you have a personal question or a concern about your health, please contact your health-care provider.

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"Learning to change unhealthy habits takes time. Sometimes years! " - Thank you for stating this, often it is stated that it takes 21 days to form a new habit and somehow that always made me feel like I failed because I wasn't able to carry on those new healthy habits after 3 weeks. Thanks for the honesty! Report
I think everyone knows that potato chips should be eaten in moderation, if at all, as well as refined grains and processed meats. But potatoes and red meat have many needed nutrients and when prepared wisely are good for you. Preparation and quantity have so much to do with this that I don't see how a study can be scientifically accurate. Report
Hey Dr. Birdie! Potatoes are a part of my diet, Baked! I like to put Turkey Chili over them. Not everyday of course! We will buy the occassional bag of low fat chips and have a portion control bagging party! It's not as hard as I thought it would be as long as my diet buddy is by my side weighing them and I stuff the tinny tiny bag! Report
My questions about this study were the things they didn't report on - consumption of fish in particular. Red meat got called out, dairy was listed as basically neutral, but some of the other items that people are routinely told to eat or not eat got skipped. Report
Yep, I agree with SHADOZA... It's all about balance.
It's not what you eat, it is how much you eat. Report
Well, when I first read about this study, part of me said, DUH! Of course eating potato chips on a daily basis will help make you fat. Then when the study when on to vilify potatoes in general I said, hold on. When eaten in moderation and not loaded with butter and bacon, potatoes can be a very healthy part of a diet. But, potatoes have become the latest "you can't eat this" food by the food police. Should some people be extra careful and/or avoid them? Yes, people with diabetes do. I think the one thing that should be emphasized is that while potatoes are a vegetable they should be consumed in a diet as a starch. But this vilifying of potatoes is ridiculous. Report
Interesting blog. I gave up potato chips for Lent one year. It didn't seem to impact my diet as much as I'd hoped (no significant weight loss), but if they become part of my steady diet (lunch side, snack, etc.), the pounds creep back on quickly. I try to limit them to the occasional snack realm. Potatoes themselves seem to go from being 'bad' to eat (starchy, etc.) to being 'good' to eat (essential minerals, vitamins, etc.). Sometimes I can't keep up.

Also, I thought pork was not considered a red meat - or is that just advertising? That fried bologna sandwich mentioned is too gross sounding to even contemplate putting near my mouth.

I agree with Meatball44 - everything in moderation. Report
I trust in Dr. Birdie. Thanks for her on Spark People Report
For me this is a huge reminder to work hard to offer my children healthy options over the ones listed here. As they are active and not overweight I often don't really consider the harm of letting them have the foods that I am trying hard to avoid. Thanks for clarifying this study! Report
Ever try Terra Chips "Sweets & Beets"...?
Everything in Moderation... Report
I don't buy these types of snacks or drinks to avoid temptation. During summer I sometimes treat myself to baked potato or corn chips and for soda I mix fruit juice or pureed fruit with soda.seltzer or water. Great post.
I can't eat "just one" so it is best for me to NOT have a Potato chip. Report
i love love love french fries and potatoe chips! I know how bad for me they are so I limit myself and only enjoy the salty fried deliciousness 3-4 times a year...my heart and thighs thank me for that. Report
I love chips and fries - the salt and the oil really itches a scratch. They're basically trigger foods, though, so I try to avoid eating them to begin with if they're available. They're definitely not a regular part of my diet. Report
I have one vice...and one vice only...PRINGLES...everyone knows it! LOL When I "treat" myself this is my treat of choice. I don't eat them often or consistently, but a couple times a year... a can goes down my gullet! LOL Report
One of my most favourite junk foods, is potato chips. I really try to stay away from them, and very seldom eat them. Report
I avoid most of these on principle. My problem isn't any of the snack foods, it's that I eat too-large portions of healthier foods. I know my never-overweight friends automatically know when to stop. Not me, but I'm working on it.

I like Dr. Birdie's careful distinction between not-gaining in the first place and losing.

And carbs, in proper proportions with other foods, are necessary for health. Report
Problem with most snack foods - you can never get enough! Report
I'm no expert but, I believe that simple carbs like chips and crackers turn to sugar which would make insulin levels spike and slow down your metabolism. I see nothing wrong with having a loaded baked potato as long as you measure what you put on it and use low-fat or fat free sour cream and cheese. It is all about moderation and calorie consumption. Also, I have read that eating a protein with a carb helps keep insulin levels from spiking. Report
I love baked potatoes, but I usually only add low fat, low calorie margarine, salt, and pepper. No cheese, bacon bits, sour cream or any of the other toppings that push it over the top.

I also love me a good streak. I've found nice, well-portioned bacon-wrapped filets at my local supermarket that are only 280 calories a piece! One is plenty for a meal with a side of veggies and a salad.

If I have a small baked potato dressed up with "I can't believe it's not butter lite" along with one of those filets, I have a nice, healthy meal that doesn't bust my calorie bank.

Just about any food can be fattening or lead to weight gain if eaten in excessive quantities. Report
White flour products....chips, crackers, bread, cookies, donuts, pastries, danish, rice, pasta... anything made with white flour. Report
I'm about to sound silly. Can someone give me an example of the "white stuff?" Report
Woubbie, virtually anything does something negative to your metabolism if not eaten in balance. Carbs are the gas for your body to operate. You need them. You just don't need to overdo them.

Birdie, 140 calorie soft drinks are on the low side. Try 190 and 200 calories for many of them. A soft drink like Dr. Pepper is 160. This summer I went from one or two soft drinks a day to one or two a MONTH. Its been an important part of losing 13 pounds in the last five weeks.

Moms: Try Lays with Olestra. A moderate 10 chip snack is only 38 calories, and at that level won't trigger the Olestra side effects. Report
Potato chips have been my downfall! I could mindlessly consume most of a bag While reading a good book. Now I only buy the 1-oz bags, and only have them occasionally. Report
Hmmm. Looks suspiciously like carbohydrates actually do something negative to your metabolism. Wonder if it involves insulin? Report
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