‘I gave up ultra-processed food for a month and lost 10lbs without even trying’ – Manchester Evening News

12 minutes, 33 seconds Read

Like many of us, I often start the new year feeling not in the best shape. The overindulgence of December is something lots of us will recognise as we treat ourselves to more indulgent food, drink more alcohol and prioritise socialising over exercise.

So in January, walking cliche that I am, I usually do dry January. In 2024 I did it again (more or less) but this year, after seeing myself side on in the mirror and being grossed out by what I saw, I changed my eating habits too.

But before you switch off thinking that sounds way too complicated, just bear with me. The changes I made were simple. So simple, in fact, that it’s now March and I’m still doing them easily (as opposed to dry January, which I’m always desperate to finish within a week), writes Steffan Rhys, WalesOnline editor.

READ MORE: ‘I did my big shop at Britain’s poshest supermarket for just £50’

And in a nutshell they involved the following:

  • no chocolate (or, in fact, any biscuit, dessert or refined sugar)
  • no ultra-processed food, with supermarket bread and granola being the ones I ate most
  • less meat
  • more legumes (think chickpeas, lentils, beans)
  • more nuts
  • eating the rainbow (more on this below)
  • less alcohol (slightly)
Tins of legumes plus vegetables
Feature on WalesOnline Editor, Steffan Rhys, who has changed his diet and cut out / reduced processed foods from his menu. Pics by Rob Browne
(Image: WalesOnline/Rob Browne)

So, it’s not about making huge changes. One of the main ways I learned about what to eat and why was by listening to the Zoe Science and Nutrition podcast a lot. Zoe is a health science company that has three co-founders. One of them is Professor Tim Spector, who is a professor of genetic epidemiology at King’s College London.

He’s one of the top researchers in the world (you might have heard his name a lot during Covid because he helped a lot with studying symptoms). Just to be clear: I haven’t been in touch with Zoe about this article (or anything else) and I’m not getting paid for this article.

I just wanted to share something that I’ve found helpful for my own health.

What are ultra-processed foods and which ones do we eat the most?

The way we buy food, how busy our lives are, and things like cost and convenience all have a big impact on the kind of food we can buy and eat. The profit margins of the big companies that make the food also play a part.

Supermarket shelves are full of ultra-processed food, so much so that it can seem hard to avoid. But it’s actually not that hard – and it doesn’t mean you can only eat fresh fruit and vegetables.

Some of the most common ultra-processed foods (or UPFs) are:

  • supermarket packaged bread
  • breakfast cereals and granola
  • flavoured yoghurt
  • chocolate, biscuits and crisps
  • energy and granola bars
  • fizzy drinks
  • microwave ready meals

The big shock for me was granola and flavoured yoghurt. I used to have granola daily for breakfast, thinking it was healthier than cereal. I mixed it with fruit and, you guessed it, flavoured yoghurt. That made me believe I’m kick-starting the day in a healthy way.

Yet, my breakfast was piled up with sugar and ultra-processed ingredients.

It’s key to note that not all types of the mentioned food are ultra-processed. For instance, it might be possible to find a ready meal or a certain brand of granola that isn’t ultra-processed.

Also, remember that humans have been processing food for thousands of years. Bread, butter, cheese and (healthier) yoghurt are all processed foods.

But ultra-processed food is a step further. Prof Spector says: “Plain yoghurt, nothing added, nothing changed, is processed because you are mixing a basic ingredient, milk, with microbes. You are creating something, that is processing.

“It is when you take it to the next stage… [adding] various starches, emulsifiers, concentrates, artificial sweeteners and flavourings… that same yoghurt becomes ultra-processed. It is that extra step that is the main problem. It is when chemicals that you don’t find in your kitchen are being added to foods that have been stripped of all their goodness… to make it look like food again.”

Dr Chris Van Tulleken, who is an expert on diseases and also presents science shows on the BBC, gave a really easy way to know what ultra-processed food is on the Zoe podcast. He said: “If it’s wrapped in plastic and it contains at least one ingredient that you don’t typically find in a domestic kitchen, then it’s ultra-processed food.”

Dr Van Tulleken tried eating mostly ultra-processed food, like many teenagers do in the UK and US. He ate whatever he wanted, but made sure 80% of it was this kind of food.

He told us: “I just ate what I wanted, but with 80% of my calories coming from ultra-processed food. And what happened? I gained a huge amount of weight in one month. I gained so much weight that if I’d continued for the whole year, I would’ve doubled my body weight.”

What changes did I make?

I don’t think I was leading an unusually unhealthy lifestyle before this year. I do a couple of circuits classes a week, run and cycle when I can and already ate a decent amount of fruit and vegetables, while almost always cooking from scratch and never really eating ready meals (I hope this doesn’t make me sound annoying – I’m still a tired 44 year old with a dad bod if that helps).

But UPFs would get into my diet in other ways. I’ve already mentioned my daily bowl of granola, I’d sometimes grab a supermarket pizza for a quick dinner when pressed for time, or make a sandwich with supermarket bread for lunch.

And I loved making chicken strips coated in corn flakes from scratch, which I’ll admit are sensationally tasty (the ground corn flakes make the chicken strips super crunchy) but corn flakes are very much ultra-processed, and so are the barbecue and peri peri sauces and mayonnaise that I’d dip them in.

So I started to think about how I could still keep my meals tasty while stripping out the unhealthy bits. The three single biggest things I’m doing are:

  • cooking more legumes either as a main or side part of a meal
  • eating nuts with Greek yoghurt and fruit for breakfast instead of granola
  • eating more vegetables

One of the best things about this is cost. It’s common to assume that eating healthier is more expensive.

I’m not saying I’m here to disprove that, but a tin of beans (cannellini, black, kidney etc) at Asda costs 49p. A cabbage costs 50p and results in a lot of food once you’ve chopped it all up (try frying it with hazelnuts or cashews).

A bag of carrots costs 35p. A tin of pineapple chunks costs £1.10. An avocado costs 89p. You can also use frozen fruit and veg without compromising on the nutrient value and quality of their fresh equivalent. It’s cheaper and lasts longer.

Plants are also high in protein and fibre so they fill you up. I’m not vegan and I’ve not quit meat (and I’m not telling you to either) but I am finding myself eating less, especially red meat, as I find that things like nuts and legumes do a good job of filling you up.

My typical breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Breakfast: nuts (usually cashews, almonds or walnuts) with Greek yoghurt and fruit for breakfast instead of granola.

Lunch: I work mostly in an office in Cardiff city centre so I usually get a salad from the market and go heavy on lentils, veg and hummus. If at home, I might have homemade guacamole or homemade hummus made from chickpeas or butter beans (recipe below), an omelette with onions and peppers, or a baked potato.

Dinner: Fish or chicken with legumes or brown rice, or a bean chilli.

Some of my favourite new recipes.

Chicken fajita rice bowl: this has chicken, peppers, red onions, baby corn, lime and black beans. You can make enough to last more than one family meal.

You could also add avocado/guacamole on the side. See the recipe here.

Vegan chilli: This is made with lots of different kinds of beans. See the recipe here. You can also stir through some roasted sweet potato to bulk it out more and get more meals from it.

Fish with cannellini beans and courgettes: I make a much-simplified version of this recipe, which doesn’t include the wine, chicken stock, garlic, parmesan or bay leaves. Basically, it’s courgette, lemon, onion and the beans, then fry some fish and stick it on top or on the side. Add fresh mint to the beans at the end to make it even nicer.

Chickpea or butter bean hummus: Hummus is so easy. Just chuck a few ingredients in a blender. Example recipe here. I find swapping butter beans in for chickpeas makes it softer.

Homemade pesto: As with hummus above, throw some ingredients in a blender and you’re done in seconds. Recipe here.

What if you can’t bear the thought of no dessert or something sweet?

I’m with you. This has been hard, but not as hard as I was expecting. I absolutely love chocolate and my house was still rammed with it after Christmas. Galaxy and Nutella are two of the nicest-tasting things you can find anywhere on earth.

What’s more, my birthday has taken place since the new year, so I didn’t eat any of my own birthday cake, and at the end of last year I learned how to make a salted caramel cheesecake for an office charity thing which I then couldn’t have any of – you can see that recipe here. But two simple options are:

  • replace your usual chocolate with a high quality dark chocolate. If it is not too processed and still has a high cocoa percentage, it will still be largely plant-based and contain the nutrients and fibres of fruit and vegetables — in fact, Prof Spector calls them “rocket fuel for your gut microbes”
  • make delicious desserts with fruit or just eat it in its basic form (pineapple and bananas are so sweet and delicious).

What about feeding fussy children?

This is hard. Very hard.

I have two young children and one, in particular, is a really fussy eater who won’t eat much beyond fish fingers and Kit-Kats, which I find quite stressful. I want my kids to eat well and not fill their diets with sugar and chemicals.

Even when I try and feed the whole family with, say, a homemade lasagne, he point blank won’t have it and I have to cook him something else (usually fish fingers and a Kit-Kat). So at the moment, all I can say is that this is an ongoing process and, for now, I’ll just try to gradually change what’s available to eat in the house for snacks so that there are fewer biscuits and chocolate bars and more fruit.

Other than that, I’ll just try to model the eating behaviour I want to see.

What have I learned so far and what are my key tips?

I can’t tell you about losing loads of weight really fast. I’m quite tall and wasn’t that heavy to start with.

But I do feel a bit thinner now, and my clothes are not so tight (my shirt doesn’t feel like it’s choking me or poking my sides anymore). I can also run a 10K race a little easier, maybe because I’ve been exercising more.

Plus, I don’t get hungry as quickly as before. I still get really hungry by lunchtime, but at least it’s not by 10 in the morning.

However, I’ve got two young children and a job that keeps me very busy, so I don’t sleep much and often feel tired.

I’m not an expert on food or science, and it hasn’t been long enough to see if eating this way will help me in the long run. But the people at the Zoe website say “whatever your age, if you switch from an unhealthy to a healthy eating pattern, you’ll likely see improvements in your cholesterol levels, blood sugar, inflammation, and weight (Prof Spector gives two foods to reduce inflammation and improve joint pain here)”.

Here’s what I suggest:

  • cut out pre-made sauces and make them from scratch instead (you can make mayo with four ingredients, and the same goes for pesto and hummus, which are delicious and go great with carrots, celery or fresh sourdough bread)
  • beans are tastier than anyone has ever given them credit for — stock up on tins and cook them with herbs (black beans and fresh coriander and lime are a great side dish)
  • nuts are great: they’re filling, healthy and taste delicious raw but even nicer cooked (fry them dry in a pan until they’re golden brown and add them to chopped chicken or a fried/sautéed veg dish)

  • listen to the Zoe podcast — it makes food and nutrition so much easier to understand
  • eggs go with most things and can be made into so many different meals
  • eat the rainbow: this just means mixing and matching plant foods with different colours. Food variety is important and different colours mean different compounds and good chemicals which help your health

  • you don’t need to make meat the centrepiece of a meal. I have not given up meat, in my house I wouldn’t be allowed to anyway, but there has been a gradual shift away from big meaty centrepieces towards a greater variety of filling and satisfying vegetables dishes
  • fat is fine: nuts, avocado, olive oil, yoghurt are all full of healthy fats. It’s the unhealthy fats and sugar in UPFs and meat that you need to try to limit
  • you don’t have to completely cut out anything at all — even moderate improvements will have corresponding benefits (I know there’s bound to be a Friday night where I just want to nail some Tony’s Chocolonely).

Nuts are brilliant: they fill you up, are good for you, and taste yummy. They’re even better when you cook them until they’re nice and brown and then add them to chicken or vegetables that you’ve fried or cooked in a pan.

The idea is to ‘eat the rainbow’, which means mixing and matching plant foods of different colours. Different colours mean different compounds and good chemicals that help your health.

The main message from the science and nutrition experts who contribute to Zoe is to focus on eating more whole foods and plants, while eating fewer foods with lots of ingredients you’ve never heard of and wouldn’t have in your kitchen. A recent study mentioned by Zoe found that switching from an unhealthy to a healthy diet at the age of 40 can add ten years to your life.

You can also learn more about the impact of polyphenols and the gut microbiome on your health. For me, that gradual switch in diet sounds like a sensible place to start.

This post was originally published on 3rd party site mentioned in the title of this site

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