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Is Ultra-Processed Food Causing A Health Emergency?

I listened to this fascinating interview with Doctor Chris Van Tulleken (author of Ultra-processed People) and thought that it would be a great topic for a blog post. It’s on the topic of ‘Ultra-Processed Food’ and “how our diet is killing us”. A very dramatic claim but is it true? Let’s find out.

As we begin it’s probably best to define what Ultra-processed food is. A good rule of thumb is if it is wrapped in plastic and contains at least one ingredient that isn’t in a typical household kitchen then it’s ultra-processed. These ingredients include artificial sweeteners, preservatives, and xantham gum.

This means that all of your store-bought burgers, pizza and ready meals are ultra-processed. Even things like bread, and breakfast cereal. Chris’s research has found that as much as 60% of what an adult is eating on a daily basis, and 70-80% of children, is Ultra-processed.

The early days of processed foods began in the early 1900s with a certain cheap butter alternative. Of course I’m talking about margarine, where manufacturers take a plant oil that will spoil quickly and bleach it, de-odourise it, sterilise it, and hydrogenate it to make it fatty and solid. We also add synthetic flavourings and colourings to make it resemble butter. At the time this kind of processing was all new and our bodies are poorly evolved to deal with those processes.

A 1960s style American Fridge

It was with the invention of the fridge and freezer in the 60s and 70s that processed foods really took off, making food more easily accessible and the creation of many food products that were loaded with preservatives.

Ultra-processed food – The biggest cause of pandemic obesity.

It’s important to realise that processing comes natural to humans and isn’t inherently bad. In fact, we have to do this in order to digest certain foods. We have to cook (a process) meat to be able to be able to digest it safely. Since the discovery of fire, we’ve evolved as a species to be this way. Humans have spent generations, seasoning, smoking, curing and marinating the food we eat. All of these are classed as processing, so it’s important to realise the distinction between processed and Ultra-processed.

The process of cooking on a fire

Ultra-processed foods are full of ingredients that make the product as cheap as possible to produce and make them hyper-palatable. For example, the additives in bread make it incredibly energy dense, so per gram, it has a lot calories. This combined with the fact that bread is soft and not filling means that we consume it at a higher rate than our body’s internal systems can tell us we’re full.

Artificial sweeteners have an effect on our physiology, and our microbiome (good bacteria in the stomach). Doctor Van Tulleken explains that if you put a sweet taste on your tongue, telling your body to produce more insulin, and the sugar never arrives then this broadly leads you to seeking sugar elsewhere. This is why artificial sweeteners aren’t associated with weight loss.

There’s a reasonable degree of certainty that the prevalence of type-2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease in society is primarily caused by ultra-processed food. In 2019 poor diet unseated smoking as the leading cause of early death on the planet. Of course, it’s important to note that Chris fails to mention that this is also due to smoking being on the decrease for decades, while type-2 diabetes has been increasing.

Doctor Van Tulleken thinks of Ultra-processed food as an “industrially produced edible substance”. He believes that food has nutritional, cultural, and social significance to us, and this is being destroyed by the handful of companies that run the industry. Their objective is to entirely take over the global diet. This has already started the loss of traditions like learning how to cook and enjoying the company of others over a nice meal.

The sad reality is that a lot of low-income households have no option but to eat this stuff. In fact, according to research, low-income households would have to spend between 60-70% of their income to eat only ‘real’ food. At the moment they spend between 6-7% on it.

Ultra-processed food can be highly addictive, much like alcohol and tobacco. Not everyone who eats ultra-processed food will get addicted but there are some people who will recognize that there are certain foods that they just can’t stop eating despite knowing they aren’t healthy. Chris urges moderation, particularly when it comes to kids. This is easier said than done when we are constantly being bombarded with adverts and colourful mascots.

How to make real change

In his book, he argues that we are all participating in an experiment that we didn’t volunteer for. We take all the risk while new chemicals are being tested on us with the benefit being handed to a select few individuals who own these food giants.

Chris calls for a grassroots cultural change where we start to think of the big food manufacturers like we do the tobacco companies. This is important because we need to refuse their money when it comes to lobbying and funding research.

He calls for limiting marketing and label warnings on Ultra-processed food telling the customer that it is associated with a whole host of ailments. Chris would like to see tighter regulation on advertising, citing a cartoon Monkey selling cereal to kids. Once that’s all in place education can and public health campaigns can help drive social change. He believes that light-touch regulation on UPF could transform the health of the nation’s young, but doesn’t want to see a full-on nanny state approach.

As a parent, when it comes to retraining the palettes of children, Chris recommends starting with Breakfast, or one meal a day. Use it to serve up healthy foods and nothing else. Make that a starting point to move forward. To him, it’s pretty simple, food created at home by someone who loves always trumps made by a corporation to make money. As a parent myself, I couldn’t agree more. It’s our responsibility to ensure the best possible health for future generations.

If you want to see the result of Doctor Chris Van Tulleken undergoing a 30-day Ultra-processed food binge then visit check out the blog, ‘What Does Ultra Processed Food Does To Your Body‘.

Until next time, “Strength for Life”

Davie

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Davie McConnachie

Davie McConnachie is Scotland’s leading health and wellness coach, multi-award-winning gym owner, motivational speaker and the founder of DMC Fitness, a fitness education facility known as the premier choice for 1-2-1 personal training. He has inspired thousands of people to fall in love with fitness – his true purpose and mission in life.

Diving into the world of fitness and wellness has helped Davie to deal with his own trauma and inner demons. He, overcame many dark times using his own unique methods to continue his cycle of healing.