I cut out ultra-processed foods for a week and no longer have afternoon meltdowns

Ultra-processed foods (UPF) are currently in the spotlight, thanks in large part to a book written by Dr. Chris Van Tulleken, Ultra-processed peopleand a subsequent Panorama documentary by Professor Tim Spector. This new research focuses on the health implications of Brits having such elaborate diets.

UPFs are estimated to make up 60% of the calories consumed by British adults. The problem with this, argues Van Tulleken, is that not only is UPF consumption linked to a long list of health problems, but the industrially produced substances in UPF can hack into our brains similar to smoking or drugs, which is why it’s so hard to stop consuming this food even when you know you probably shouldn’t. How many of us can stop at just one Pringle?

Part of the problem is that UPFs are generally cheap, convenient to prepare (read: reheat), and are often marketed with cartoons and colorful packaging that make them more appealing to kids. Though health concerns are being raised now, others say we shouldn’t obsess over UPFs at a time when many people can’t afford to feed their families.

Hannah Whittaker, a pediatric and pregnancy dietitian and founder of Bump2baby Nutrition, who works with parents and children in high-deprivation areas of Liverpool, says she is a bit divided on the UPF issue. From a nutritional point of view, yes, I think there is a need for the hysteria around UPFs. We should be more mindful of what we’re eating because there’s strong evidence to suggest that UPFs increase the risk of things like cardiovascular disease and colon cancer, and negatively affect the gut. But on the other hand, there is such a lack of nutritional knowledge and most of the parents I work with (about 70%) feed their kids mostly UPF because of the cost.

For me, after reading Dr. Van Tullekens’ book, I was curious about how much of this ultra-processed material I was consuming and challenged myself to quit UPF altogether for a week. Getting started required some serious planning. I first needed to figure out what items and ingredients I was trying to avoid, which I soon discovered isn’t always straightforward.

What Makes Ultra Processed Food?

A team of Brazilian researchers created the Nova classification in 2010. It divides foods into four groups: unprocessed or minimally processed foods fruits, vegetables, unprocessed meat, eggs, milk and pasta; processed culinary ingredients oils, butter, sugar, salt, vinegar, honey; combinations of processed foods from groups one and two that are processed primarily for preservation, such as canned vegetables, fish, canned fruit, and freshly baked (non-mass-produced) bread. And number four is ultra-processed foods.

These UPFs have a very long formal definition, but Van Tulleken simplifies it as if it’s wrapped in plastic and has at least one ingredient you won’t usually find in a standard home kitchen.

These ingredients might include things like hydrolyzed proteins, modified starches, whey proteins, fructose and maltodextrins, which usually appear at the top or middle of the ingredients list. Additives that make food more palatable, such as artificial flavors, colors, emulsifiers, stabilizers, and sweeteners, usually appear near the end.

The UPF diet made me anxious, miserable, and deeply sad, says Dr. Chris Van Tulleken (Photo: Story Image Makers ltd)

Before starting, I had budget problems. I raised them with my mother, but she quickly reminded me that my grandmother, Freda Fitzmaurice, didn’t cook with ultra-processed foods and fed her eight children on a micro-budget. Her menu was heavily rooted in the routine and seasonality of root vegetables in the winter, salads in the summer. The meat was bought once a week from the butchers and the leftovers, bones and carcass were used to make soups and stews. She relied on cheap but nutritious sources like liver and lentils and filled each meal with vegetables.

In fact, Whittaker insists: It’s not about going organic, or even aiming for 30 plants a week (as now recommended by many nutritionists), it’s about making small swaps to begin with, fruit instead of processed snacks, cooking instead of heat up.

So none of this is rocket science and simplicity is really key when it comes to keeping costs down, but this way of working takes time and organisation. This is where I struggled, I’m not used to taking the time out of every meal to cook like my grandmother did.

Start

I searched for Rukmini Iyers The roasting pan series for inspiration. Her recipes combine chicken, fish and whole grains and are safe to bake. Meanwhile, her One Pot Coconut Chickpea Curry comes to 1 serving. Trays make cooking during the week less of a chore and are handy to serve as leftovers for the next day.

In her book, Van Tulleken recommends thrifty recipes from Allegra McEvedy and Jack Monroe. I tried the Monroes Salad Pouch Pesto where leftover leaves are pureed into a sauce. Many supermarket bought dressings are UPF, plus bagged salad is one of the most wasted foods in Britain (and certainly in my house) and can easily be grabbed in the smaller section most nights. The only other ingredients required are garlic, oil, lemon juice and a pinch of salt and pepper, no expensive pine nuts here they come in at 9p a portion and actually taste good, with a nice spiciness.

Young woman holding spinach leaf salad
Pouched salad is one of the most wasted foods in Britain (and certainly in my own home) (Photo: Getty)

I’ve also relied on canned fish, such as anchovies and tuna (which fall into group three, processed for preservation purposes) for a few pasta salad lunches, and feeling very satisfied, made a batch of homemade soup entirely with frozen spinach, broccoli and cauliflower.

The pudding comes in the form of canned fruit and kefir yogurt (which I’m relieved to find is made simply with organic milk fermented with live lactic ferments). I’ve also tried smoothies made from frozen fruits and vegetables, packed with seeds and oats, which aren’t cheap but are significantly cheaper and less processed (and sugary) than the store-bought variety.

The obstacles

The bread was a stumbling block. Incidentally, a sliced ​​loaf of brown granary is the cover image of Van Tulleken’s book. While many of us complacently choose whole-grain seeded loaves over white slices, it turns out that being mass-produced and all (and wrapped in plastic), even the fanciest, most expensive bread you find in a supermarket is often classified as UPF due to the emulsifiers and preservatives. Yes, it’s more nutritious, as it contains more fiber, but have you ever noticed that it doesn’t really go stale? Moldy, yes, but hard as a French wand, no.

You can only really guarantee a loaf of bread is UPF-free when it’s bought fresh from a bakery. According to the Nova system, industrial breads made only with wheat flour, water, salt and yeast are processed foods, while those whose ingredient lists also include emulsifiers or coloring agents are ultraprocessed.

During my UPF-free week I struggled with this. I love sourdough as much as the next person, but it’s not a practical mid-week fix because it goes off too quickly and is way more expensive. As a compromise, I buy a fresh loaf of bread from the bakery section of the supermarket, ask for it to be sliced, and then freeze half of it. There are far more important things going on in the world to obsess over with sliced ​​bread, but there’s something about knowing it contains extra stuff that put me off my favorite batch. When in doubt, opt for fresh rye, which certainly lasts longer.

What I learned

Most people now understand that cakes, chips, and sodas are considered ultra-processed foods, and most of us still consume them at times. But have you ever sat down and counted exactly how many ingredients your favorite snack contains? I was alarmed to discover that a Belgian sandwich at 3pm contained 39 ingredients! I was under no illusions that this was a nutritious snack, but it was thought-provoking reading nonetheless.

In fact, the elements you might least suspect are often surprising. The obvious UPF culprits of junk food, convenience foods and sugary treats are easy to spot, but low-fat alternatives are often filled with synthetic molecules to replace fat, which have no health benefit at best. Health. So butter is better than margarine, and I’ll stick with everything else. Also look for what is added to foods considered healthier alternatives, such as veggie chips, granola bars, and plant-based meat substitutes.

While I was learning a lot, I can also see how, just like other elimination and calorie counting diets, clean eating places an unhealthy focus on food, which can lead to disordered eating. I see that constantly going through ingredient lists in an attempt to locate UPF could also become problematic.

The purpose of my challenge wasn’t to eliminate all traces of UPF from my diet, rather to find out exactly what I’m eating. As Van Tulleken says, some people (like him) will want to remove UPFs from their diet entirely, but others will make decisions about what feels OK and what feels gross. A dollop of mayonnaise that’s UPF thanks to the flavorings and disodium calcium here and there won’t hurt, but if all of your meals have some form of UPF, and an alarming number of mine do, then it might be time to reevaluate.

Did I feel different after going UPF-free? Yes, perhaps unsurprisingly, after a week of eating real-food meals, I felt fuller and more satisfied afterwards, which translated to fewer mid-afternoon crises and more energy.

While it was definitely more of an issue, there was something about taking a focused approach to meals, rather than mindlessly reaching for everything I could find, that made me feel good. If anything, my UPF-free week served as a welcome reminder to simply eat more plants and cook more from scratch.

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Image Source : inews.co.uk

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