I’ve eaten no chocolate or ultra-processed food in two months — here’s what I’ve learned about food – Wales Online

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

So in January, walking cliché 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). 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)

See, we’re not talking anything overly dramatic here. And the other key thing I did to learn about what to eat and why was listen a lot to the Zoe Science and Nutrition podcast. Zoe is a health science company with three co-founders, including Professor Tim Spector, professor of genetic epidemiology at King’s College London and one of the world’s leading researchers (you might have heard his name a lot during Covid, when he was instrumental in the study of symptoms). To be clear at this point: there has been no contact between me and Zoe in relation to this article (or in relation to anything at all, ever) and I am not being paid for this article. I’m just sharing something which I am finding useful and beneficial to my own health.

Read more:I tried Michael Mosley’s Fast 800 diet for a week and couldn’t believe the results

Read more: I was one of 62% of people in Wales overweight – we need to change that

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

The way we buy food, our busy lives, plus considerations around cost and convenience all heavily influence the nature of the food on sale and the food we eat. So do the profit margins of the multi-national companies that make it. Supermarket shelves are absolutely packed with ultra-processed food, so much so that it can feel hard to avoid. But it’s actually not that hard at all — and it doesn’t involve eating nothing but 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

For me, the big shocks here were granola and flavoured yoghurt. Before this year, granola was what I ate for breakfast every single day, assuming it was healthy (or at least healthier than cereal). Because I ate it with fruit and, you’ve guessed it, flavoured yoghurt, I thought I was starting the day healthily. In fact, I was having a breakfast massively high in sugar and ultra-processed ingredients.

It’s important to remember that not all variations of everything named above are ultra-processed. For example, it might be possible to find a ready meal or a certain brand of granola that isn’t ultra-processed. It’s also important to 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, an infectious diseases doctor at University College London, BBC science presenter and New York Times bestselling author, gave this simple one-sentence definition on ultra-processed food on the Zoe podcast: “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.”

(For an experiment, Dr Van Tulleken drastically changed his diet so that 80% of it was made up of ultra-processed food, which would in fact be typical for a teenager in the UK and US. The results were dramatic. He said: “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 and what does a typical day’s food look like now?

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.

Tins of legumes plus vegetables
Legumes (like beans, chickpeas and lentils) are a great thing to introduce more of to your diet — plus they’re cheap and keep for ages
(Image: WalesOnline/Rob Browne)

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 give you a sensational headline about losing two stone in a month. I’m 5ft 8in and only weighed about 11.5 stone anyway. But I feel slimmer and clothes fit a bit more comfortably than they did at the end of 2023 (wearing a shirt doesn’t now feel like I’m being strangled while having my love handles jabbed). I can run a 10K marginally more comfortably, though that could also just be down to the gradual process of doing a bit more exercise. I also find myself being less hungry less often. Don’t get me wrong, by midday I’m starving. But that’s better than being starving at 10am. But I still have two young kids and a stressful job so my sleep is poor and I still regularly feel pretty tired.

I have no expertise in science or nutrition and it’s been far too short a period to determine any sort of long-term benefits but the Zoe website says “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 are my main tips:

  • 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).

The overarching, simple 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 which contain a lot of ingredients you’ve never heard of and would never have in your kitchen. A recent study cited by Zoe found that switching from an unhealthy to a healthy diet at the age of 40 can add a decade to your life.

You can also delve a lot deeper to understand 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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