‘I gave up ultra-processed food for a week and realised I, err, might have a problem…’ – Yahoo Canada Shine On

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Ultra-processed food. You’ve probably heard of it. Heck, you’ve probably eaten lots of it in your time – but you still might not know exactly what it is. Despite the sheer volume of ultra-processed food (UPF) in our lives (you’ll find it in most kitchens, supermarkets and lunch boxes), awareness of ultra-processed food and the associated risks is still relatively new, at least for the majority of us.

But low UPF recipes and diets have been on the rise lately, thanks in part to best-selling books like Ultra-Processed People, written by Dr Chris van Tulleken, an infectious diseases doctor at the Hospital for Tropical Diseases in London.

Below, Cosmopolitan UK talks to Dr van Tulleken about all things UPF, the benefits of reducing your intake, and why cutting out UPF might be easier said than done (but that doesn’t mean you can’t give it a go, if you’d like to). Oh, and I gave it a try for a week too – with some *interesting* results…

What is ultra-processed food?

Ultra-processed food refers to food that has been ultra-processed during its production, often with the addition of ingredients you wouldn’t normally find in your cupboards, if you were trying to recreate the recipe at home (think emulsifiers, preservatives, artificial flavours and the like).

Essentially, it is the opposite of a whole food (think vegetables, fruit, eggs, nuts or other foods left in its most natural state), and goes a step beyond processing a food by cooking or altering it using ingredients a home chef would have to hand.

“There’s a very long, formal definition, but it boils down to if something is wrapped in plastic and contains an ingredient that you don’t typically find in a domestic kitchen, then it’s almost certainly an ultra-processed food,” explains Dr van Tulleken.

So, UPF often includes ice cream, sausages, crisps, flavoured yoghurt, and mass-produced bread, to name a few examples.

One easy way to identify UPF is looking for “any food with a health claim on the pack, like low fat, high fibre, whole grain,” says the expert, who adds, “anything like that is almost always ultra-processed.”

What risks are associated with ultra-processed food?

a woman sitting on the floor eating a big bag of crispsa woman sitting on the floor eating a big bag of crisps

Letizia Le Fur – Getty Images

“We’ve got very good evidence now from thousands of independent studies that link ultra-processed foods with a very wide range of harms and these include cardiovascular disease, like strokes and heart attacks,” reports Dr van Tulleken.

He says that weight gain and obesity are the most obvious risks associated with UPF but that there are a range of additional problems that you may be affected by, whether or not you gain weight. “It causes strokes and heart attacks, metabolic disease like type two diabetes, anxiety, depression, inflammatory disease like Crohn’s disease, dementia, cancers (all cancers, but specifically breast and bowel), and then also early death from all causes.”

His message reinforces what we already know: your diet has a big impact on your life. Research suggests poor diet is killing more people globally than tobacco, and when quizzed about what this entails, the author was very clear. “By poor diet, we do mean an ultra-processed diet.”

Is all ultra-processed food bad for us?

Naturally, your next question is probably, ‘Is all ultra-processed food bad for us?’ This is certainly not the case, according to Dr van Tulleken, who points out it’s not as simple as categorising food as either ‘good’ or ‘bad’.

“If you were going to live on a desert island for a year, you’d be much better off with a stack of burgers to survive on than a pile of broccoli. You wouldn’t live a year eating only broccoli,” explains the expert. So, when it comes to our diets, we’re better off examining our dietary patterns. “What we think is really important is that people eat a dietary pattern that is not built on ultra-processed food,” continues Dr van Tulleken.

What does that mean? Well, for many of us, lots of our meals are centred around UPF. Think about your lunch, for instance. “All our sandwiches are ultra-processed, even the fancy ones,” says Dr van Tulleken, who adds that we follow similar patterns at dinner, too. Baked beans, oven chips, fish fingers, sausages, all of that is ultra-processed, according to the pro.

If you’re vegetarian, you might opt for a meat alternative, but lots of these products also “meet the definition of ultra-processed.”

But, please don’t let that panic you. Once more, “There are definitely ultra-processed products that aren’t harmful. The issue is the pattern of diet,” says the doctor (around one in five people in the UK and USA get 80% of the calories in their diet from UPF).

Should I reduce my intake of ultra-processed foods?

It’s important to note there are several factors at play when it comes to diet and cost is one of them.

“It’s very easy to cook real food cheaply if you have a big kitchen and loads of Tupperware and a deep freezer and lots of time to do it. But if you don’t have those things, real food is fantastically expensive,” explains Dr van Tulleken. “For many, many people in the UK at the moment, it is unaffordable.”

He adds that he “doesn’t have any advice for anyone. I want people to eat whatever they want. I just want people to have adequate information about what food they buy.” The doctor does, however, want the government to take action, to prevent UPF from being marketed at kids, to add warnings to food, and to tackle poverty and inequality.

For his part, Dr van Tulleken doesn’t eat much UPF, but he takes a different approach with his kids. “My children do eat quite a lot of it,” he says. “They probably get, I would say, 20% to 30% of their calories from UPF,” explaining he wants them to be able to eat the same food as their friends, especially at school.

Is ultra-processed food addictive?

high angle view of ice cream sundaeshigh angle view of ice cream sundaes

JGI/Jamie Grill/Blend Images – Getty Images

To reiterate the above, nobody is saying you must give up ultra-processed food. But if you’re interested in lowering your intake, you may find the following advice helpful.

“There is very good evidence now that many of these products for many people are addictive, and so some people may find it easier to just cut out ultra-processed food completely rather than try and be moderate. I don’t give that as advice, but some people do find that. Of course, it is much more expensive to avoid ultra-processed food completely,” notes Dr van Tulleken.

What happened when I tried to quit ultra-processed foods for a week…

After talking to Dr van Tulleken (and hearing him explain cutting back on UPFs could help to reduce everything from bloating to anxiety), I wanted to reduce my own UPF intake – but I wasn’t sure where to start.

Truth be told, my diet revolves heavily around UPF and I don’t think I really quite realised to what extent until I took real stock of it for this article. A typical day for me includes a pain au chocolat during my morning commute, a sandwich for lunch, and vegetarian meat alternatives for dinner, with lots of sugary snacks in between.

It’s not only that I’m time-poor and a bad cook (although those are both factors), I routinely reach for a plastic-wrapped sugary treat (or five) when I’m hungry as it’s a quick convenience. I often joke that I don’t have a sweet tooth but rather sweet teeth, plural.

fresh homegrown vegetables and fruitsfresh homegrown vegetables and fruits


When it came to giving up UPF snacks, I found the process surprisingly easy – and figured the best approach for me personally would be going cold (unprocessed) turkey. Knowing most chocolate bars, crisps and the like were out of bounds was easier than limiting myself to just a few of them. Instead, I filled up on non-UPF snacks (like fruit, veg, and nuts).

Likewise, finding low-UPF and UPF-free meals wasn’t the nightmare I thought it was going to be. It’s worth noting, I did have some help in the form a Gousto box with recipes for butter bean burgers, halloumi rancheros and spicy tofu tacos, but a quick Google search returns lots of yummy options (whether you’re vegetarian, like me, or not).

(FYI, ordering a Gousto box doesn’t guarantee all of your meals will be 100% UPF-free. But the recipe box service does say it is committed to lowering the number of UPF ingredients in its boxes which already stands pretty low at 11%, reportedly owing to items such as meat-free mince and stock powders.)

What I did massively struggle with was finding the time to prepare fresh meals from scratch every day, since I didn’t incorporate bulk cooking into my weekly plan. Everything Dr van Tulleken had said was echoing in my ears – it’s true there are so many factors at play when it comes to healthy eating, from the budget of your weekly shop to the size of your refrigerator.

As for the results? Well, in the short space of a week, I didn’t notice any major positives from my altered diet. In fact, I felt pretty miserable for the first few days. I had a constant headache (possibly caused by sugar withdrawal, though I can’t be sure) and I was super bloated (almost definitely caused by the humongous chickpea salad I devoured on day one). As soon as the week finished, I quickly reverted back to my default diet.

But, moving forward, I will be working on it, trying to figure out what’s realistic for me when it comes to cutting back on junk food (whilst an entirely UPF-free diet isn’t realistic, hopefully one with fewer UPFs will be). Truth be told, I’m looking forward to discovering more delicious low-UPF recipes.

This article is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice or diagnosis. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

If you’re worried about your own or someone else’s health, you can contact Beat, the UK’s eating disorder charity, 365 days a year on 0808 801 0677 or via the website

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