Ultra Processed Food

What I’m about to share is fascinating and horrifying at the same time… 

It comes from a Good Life Letter reader, who read one of my emails about Ultra Processed Food (handily abbreviated to ‘UPF’). 

They sent me a link to a fascinating article by food writer Chris Van Tulleken, in which he gave up all UPFs for a month and diarised what happened. 

Now, if you missed my recent letters on this subject, the gist of the matter is this… 

Forget carbs, fats and natural sugars… 

They’re yesterday’s food baddies. 

The growing consensus now is that all these things are good in balance, when they come from whole ingredients, cooked freshly. 

What most nutritionists are realising is that the real enemy is Ultra Processed Food, which now makes up over 60% of the average UK diet. 

And in some cases, particularly with children, it’s forming as much as 80%. 

These are foods made in factories, containing modified starches, seed oils, stabilising gums, flavourings, dyes, firming agents. 

They’ve been refined, bleached, filtered and reconstituted into something resembling a foodstuff. 

Or as one scientist describes UPF…  

‘An industrially produced edible substance’. 

These substances include everything from factory-made bread, sausages and pasta sauces, to ready-meals, breakfast cereals, crisps, cakes and biscuits. 

Over-consumption of these products is now being linked to the following: 

  • Cancer 
  • Metabolic disease 
  • Dementia 
  • Mental illness 
  • Damaged gut lining 
  • Disrupted microbiome

And according to Ultra-Processed People, the new book by Chris Van Tulleken, this is having some other weird effects on us. 

For example, in Britain and the USA, where UPFs are consumed at some of the highest rates in the world, children’s jaws are shrinking. 

A third of 12-year-olds now have an overbite – and this is because the majority of our diet is so soft, we barely need to chew it.  

Not only that, but British kids are shrinking too, becoming 5cms shorter than their European counterparts – and the latest studies suggest that this is also an effect of UPFs. 

UPFs could be the number one reason behind the obesity crisis too…. 

Lose weight by giving up just ONE food type 

In his book, Van Tulleken decided to give up UPFs entirely for a month and keep a diary. 

Despite being a food writer with (what he thought) was a largely health diet, including a few take-aways and treats, he was surprised. 

He found that he started experiencing extraordinary cravings for UPFs, even food he normally didn’t obsess about, like KFC or McDonald’s. 

But he also very quickly lost weight. 

By the way, it wasn’t as if he gave up ‘processed’ foods either – he still ate good quality traditional cheese, sourdough bread made by a local baker, and his own mayonnaise (brands like Hellmann’s are UPFs!) 

So, this wasn’t a diet devoid of pleasurable foods by any means. 

No carb restrictions, no giving up dairy, no calorie counting or worrying about fats. 

It was a diet that simply side-stepped the industrialised, mechanised gloop that so many people eat every day. 

It reminds me of something the author Michael Pollan advises about a healthy diet. 

“Don’t eat anything your great grandmother wouldn’t recognise as food.” 

Anyway, to balance out his food experiment, Chris Van Tulleken followed his UPF-free month with a month in which he ate UPFs whenever he felt like it.  

He admits that, initially, he was enjoying his return to ready meals, snack bars and cereals… 

But because he KNEW the facts about how little real food was in each meal and snack, it started to freak him out. 

He describes it as smoking a cigarette while thinking about lung cancer. 

The very knowledge of what he was really eating began to put him off… 

Within a few weeks it got to the point where he started craving whole foods. 

And perhaps this might be the key to change… 

Could we benefit from a mass awakening? 

I wonder… 

If more people knew precisely the health dangers of UPFs, would they still eat them with such gusto, and in such volumes? 

I know that I certainly don’t. 

I still eat them now and then, of course, as I am certainly no food saint. 

But I have the same sense of moderation that I might have with other unhealthy substances. 

After all, I wouldn’t drink beer and wine every day. 

It’s a bit like when the public started to realise the dangers of smoking…  

Or when the public started to realise the environmental effects of plastic packaging… 

Or when the extra-harmful effects of diesel pollution became more apparent. 

It forced governments and big corporations to change. 

And maybe… just maybe… this could start to happen with Ultra Processed Food if people start to wake up to the truth about what it’s doing to their bodies and their minds. 

More crucially, what it’s doing to their children, and grandchildren.  

One potential snag, as Chris Van Tulleken points out, is that UPFS are so cheap at the moment. 

People in the UK spend on average around 8% of their household budget on food. But if the poorest half of the UK were to completely adhere to a non-UPF diet, it might cost them 30% of their disposable income. 

So even if you raised awareness, it might not change anything because of the financial pressures people are under these days. 

However, if you can, I’d recommend trying Chris Van Tulleken’s experiment, just for a few weeks or so. 

See what kind of effects it has. 

Perhaps you might be surprised by the changes to your waistline, your mood and your general wellbeing.