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How To Give Up Ultra Processed Food In Four Simple Steps

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The many harmful ways that ultra processed food degrades our health is becoming widely understood. People are waking up to the fact that eating chemically engineered foods that are high in fat, salt, and sugar is making us sick.


In his bestselling book, Metabolical, Dr Robert Lustig persuasively argues that ultra processed foods are responsible for the explosion in non-communicable diseases. Drawing off a wealth of research, Dr Lustig argues that UPF ‘is behind the lethal increase [in] diabetes, heart disease, fatty liver disease, cancer and dementia.’


But you already know all this, otherwise, you wouldn’t be searching for ideas of how to give up ultra processed food. Well, you’ve come to the right place. The purpose of this article is to provide you with a tried and tested plan for removing UPF from your diet.


To improve accessibility, the plan is organised into four steps. I recommend following the steps in the order that they are presented. Once you finish the plan, you’ll have all the tools to give up ultra processed food.


Let’s get started!


How to give up ultra processed food Step #1

How to give up ultra process food #1: record consumption.

The most critical step to cutting out UPF is being aware of how much you currently consume. Before starting any journey, you need to know where you are. UPF easily slips under the conscious radar: You thought it was only one Pringle you nibbled on at lunch (that’s even if you remembered), but you munched through half the pack. Once you pop . . .


When working with people who are trying to manage their weight, I always ask how much ultra processed food they eat. Typically, they are unsure what distinguishes processed from ultra processed. That’s understandable: companies try very hard to promote their products as healthy.


After explaining the difference, again I question their consumption. Invariably they say, ‘I hardly ever eat such foods.’ Due to the sneakiness of UPFs, I suspect that they are eating more than they realise.


How to detect UPFs

I have a simple time-honoured strategy that exposes hidden UPFs. I ask clients to complete a food diary. For one week they must make a note of everything they eat. Capturing a snapshot of their weekly intake enables them to identify unhealthy dietary habits.


This is one of the most effective steps you can take on your journey to give up ultra processed food. And don’t think that you’ll have to walk around with a notepad and pen at the ready like a detective at a crime scene. Use your phone to take pictures of everything you eat. The images will be timestamped and catalogued into days.


How to give up ultra processed food Step #2

How to give up ultra process food #2: Identify one recurring UPF.

Once you’ve compiled a diet diary (either digital or paper-based), it’s time to pull up your sleeves and prepare to go to work. Step 2 is about finding opportunities to cut UPF out of your diet. I say ‘cut out’ and not ‘stop’ because, like most people in the West, the majority of your dietary intake is probably comprised of ultra-processed foods. According to Henery Dimbleby, over 52% of our calories come from UPF (Ravenous: How To Get Ourselves and Our Planet into Shape).


If you suddenly stop eating UPF, you might starve. Instead of going cold turkey, I recommend targeting one UPF item that features frequently throughout your diet. But don’t just ruthlessly cut it from the menu. Be smart and replace it with a similar but healthier alternative. Here’s an example of how to get started.


Giving up ultra processed food

I’m guessing that you begin each morning with a bowl of cereal. Well, you may not know this, but many popular cereals qualify as processed or ultra processed. Sorry! In addition to containing ingredients that can’t be found in a normal home kitchen, breakfast cereals are often high in sugar and salt. Furthermore, they’re typically dowsed in semi-skimmed cow’s milk and accompanied by a glass of super-sugary orange juice and/or caffeinated drink. Before you’ve even stepped out of the house, you’ve eaten three or four different highly processed foods.


Though the myth that breakfast is the most important meal of the day is under scrutiny (I’m still a believer), who can argue with the wise words start as you mean to go on? Beginning your day with a belly full of Frankenstein foods is setting you on the path of poor dietary choices. But switching to a healthy breakfast not only ensures that you provide your body with a nourishing repast, but it also improves your prospects of making better food decisions throughout the day. Need a breakfast recipe?


How to give up ultra processed food Step #3

How to give up ultra process food #3: Start reducing consumption of UPFs.

Until you have habituated Step 2, it’s inadvisable to move on to Step 3. Only when you’re eating a healthy breakfast every morning should you look to cut out another ultra processed food. Making too many changes to your diet in one go increases your risk of relapse.


But let’s assume that you’ve banished cereal from breakfast, what’s next? If like many people 52% of your diet is comprised of UPFs, you’ve still got a way to go before you reach zero. To get closer to that 0, we’re going to apply a similar method used in Step 2.


Revisit your diet diary and identify a UPF that crops up like a rampant weed. Maybe you’ve noticed that you’re eating a bag or two of crisps every day. Removing this sneaky snack from your diet would be a healthy move indeed. According to a Mail Online article, ‘eating one pack a day is like drinking FIVE LITRES of cooking oil a year,’ (capitals are in the original).


The report goes on to say that, though viewed as an acceptable indulgence, ‘emerging evidence’ is showing that crips are ‘fuelling not just the obesity and heart disease epidemics, but [are] linked to development problems in unborn babies, hyperactivity in children and potentially cancer in adults.’


Cutting out crisps

But we’re not going to give crisps the chop without identifying a worthy replacement. That’ll be no mean feat for the simple fact that few treats are as fiendishly morish. Also, many of the ‘healthier’ alternatives – if you’re already lining up the root veg varieties – can contain more salt, sugar, and fat than their couch potato counterpart.


A simple substitute would be unadulterated whole nuts – perhaps with a sprinkle of raisins or chopped dates. (Yet even here you’ve got to be careful. Some dried fruit contains sulphates and lots of sugar.) However, it’s important to avoid overcompensating with nuts because they’re notoriously high in saturated fat.


Reducing ultra processed food

Sometimes it can seem like we’re replacing one problem for another. If you just want to cut UPF from your diet, try the tapering method instead. Here’s how to do it.


First, you can cut back from two to one bag a day. Right off the bat, you’ve slashed consumption by 50%. When you feel comfortable with a single daily packet, aim to implement the occasional ‘crispless day.’ You read that right. Try going without a single solitary Quaver for 24hrs.


Continue cutting down until you can survive a full week without tearing into a bag. You’re now on the path to curing your crip addiction.


How to give up ultra processed food Step #4

How to give up ultra processed food #4: Remove, replace, repeat!

Now that you’ve successfully crushed your crisp addiction, it’s time to move on to a different ultra processed food. Again, that means referring to your diet diary and identifying another offending item.


I’m not going to walk you through the process again because I think you get the idea. But that begs the question: what’s the final step all about then?


Quite simply, How to give up ultra processed food Step #4 is about repeating what you have learned so far. The method outlined above (Steps 1 through to 3) provides you with a tried and tested recipe for eradicating your reliance on ultra processed food.


To recap, the key ingredients are:


Giving up ultra processed food

  • Create a week’s snapshot of your food intake by producing an accurate diet diary. Using either a pen and paper or your mobile phone, make a note of everything that you eat in a week.

  • With a fine-toothed comb, go through your diary and expose all UPFs.

  • Select the UPF that crops up most frequently.

  • Aim to eradicate the UPF by replacing it with a healthy alternative or incrementally reducing consumption.

  • Repeat the process until all UPF has been removed from your diet diary.


Giving up ultra processed food isn’t easy

It’s worth bearing in mind that giving up ultra processed food isn’t easy. It has, after all, been engineered to be overeaten. ‘Studies have shown that UPFs are so palatable that we regularly eat far more of them than we need,’ (Food For Life). This was illustrated in a recent study where ‘stable-weight people were invited into a lab and were given either unlimited UPFs or similar but unprocessed foods for two weeks.’


Concluding the two weeks, researchers calculated that the study participants consumed 500 calories a day more on the UPF-only diet than they did when eating unprocessed food. To put that into perspective. For males that’s a 20% increase in daily calories and a 25% increase for females. Across a week, it’s roughly the equivalent of 1.5 days of additional calories. Is it any wonder that UPF has been linked to obesity?


At first, you don’t succeed . . .

But why am I telling you this? Because when trying to give up ultra processed food, relapse is guaranteed. The process of purging crisps from your diet as I explained it in Step #3 is never going to be that straightforward. You will likely backslide and revert to your old habit.


Remember, that’s absolutely fine. Also, remember that it’s not a sign that you have failed or lack self-discipline. Quite the contrary. It’s an inevitable part of the process of reforming unhealthy habits. Furthermore, it suggests that you are reliant on UPFs which underscores the importance of the endeavour.


The important thing is not to beat yourself up when you do relapse. Simply acknowledge that you have. Once you’re ready, go back to the strategy outlined under How to give up ultra processed Step #2. Repeat over and over until you have control of your consumption.


Good luck!


Ultra processed foods FAQ

UPF frequently asked questions.

Hopefully, the four simple steps above have helped you on your way to giving up ultra processed food. Though the journey is long and riven with pitfalls, it is certainly worth making. Reducing the consumption of UPFs can improve our health and decrease our risk of many diseases.


To conclude this article, I’ve answered three frequently asked questions about UPF. The answers aim to clarify some of the confusion surrounding the classification of UPF, whether vegan UPFs can be consumed as part of a healthy diet, and what constitutes a common UPF.


If after reading through the FAQ you have any unanswered questions, either pop them in the comments box below or, better still, get yourself a copy of Ultra-Processed People >


What’s the definition of ultra processed foods?

Brazilian scientist Carlos Monteiro is widely credited for sounding the first major alarm bell of the detrimental health impacts of UPF consumption. In a series of studies, he showed a convincing relationship between UPF consumption and premature mortality. Monterio also carefully classified all foods into his now famous NOVA table. Under the NOVA system, ultra-processed food is referred to as ‘industrialised formulations manufactured from substances derived from foods or synthesised from other organic sources,’ (Food For Life).


The classification goes on to say that UPFs ‘typically contain little or no whole foods.’ They are ‘fatty, salty, or sugary and depleted in dietary fibre, protein, various micronutrients and other bioactive compounds.’


Are vegan ultra processed food healthy?

A number of leading health figures are calling into question vegan meat alternatives – typically the only type of vegan food touted as such. While switching to vegan meat stops you from contributing to the animal slaughter industry, the implied health benefits are often misleading. Take Richmond’s Meat Free Streaky Bacon as an example.


The lifeless pale strands of pseudo pig meat are encased in disarming plastic packaging showing green pasture fields, a mouthwatering bacon sandwich, and their homely cottage logo. And though there is no explicit mention that the product is healthy, it’s doing its best to lead you into thinking that it is – or at least leading you away from thinking that it's unhealthy.


Yet, pop the packet over and you’re socked in the stomach with a War and Peace-sized ingredients list. Who would have thought that to synthetically engineer bacon you need:


Water, Rehydrated Textured Wheat and Pea Protein (30%) (Water, Wheat Protein, Wheat Starch, Flour [Wheat Flour, CalcWium, Iron, Niacin, Thiamine], Peal Protein*), Rapeseed Oil, Soya Protein, Wheat Protein, Gelling Agents: Carrageenan, Konjac Gum, Salt, Natural Flavourings, Oat Fibre, Colouring Foods: Radish, Carrot, Smoked Maltodextrin, Potato Starch, Acidity Regulator, Citric Acid, Barley Yeast Extract, Sugar, Coconut Oil, Shiitake Mushroom Powder, Bay Powder.

Suffice it to say, Richmond’s Meat Free Streaky Bacon ticks all the NOVA classification guidelines for ultra processed food. And according to Dr Tulleken, any species of UPF is harmful to your health.


However, Dr Micheal Greger, an avid proponent of the plant-based diet movement and author of the international bestseller How Not To Die, would probably argue that UPF vegan bacon is less harmful to your health than the real thing, what with the extra additives, preservatives, sulphites, traces of antibiotics and 'PLOPs' – persistent lipophilic organic pollutants. But if they’re equally bad, at least with the vegan alternative you are not contributing to animal cruelty. Also, as an added bonus, you could be minimising your carbon footprint.


What are the most common ultra processed foods?

As I endeavour to explain in this blog on Ultra Processed Foods, there isn’t any point in compiling a list of UPFs. Why? Well, for the simple reason that there are so many. Also, UPFs are constantly coming and going.


Thus, a list of common ultra processed foods would have to be updated and renewed every week. It’s for this reason that it’s wiser to learn the key characteristics of UPF. That way we will be able to distinguish them when we’re doing our shopping.


Of course, though undeniably important, the NOVA classification is not much use in the real world. What’s an ‘industrial formulation’ and when do we know that an ingredient is ‘synthesised from other organic sources’? We need simple actionable advice that we can apply on the fly.


One unambiguous indicator of ultra processing, given to us by Tim Spector, is if the food label contains ten or more ingredients. The only downside of this detection method is the faff of having to count the ingredients on the back of every suspected item of UPF. Apparently, so few people bother to read the ingredients lists that health organisations have suggested situating food labels on the front of packaging.


A slightly more efficient method comes from the pages of Ultra-Processed People. Tulleken tells us that if additives are hard to pronounce or wouldn’t be stocked in a normal home kitchen, then it’s likely UPF. For a more instructive insight into how to spot UPFs, see our blog Ultra Processed Foods List >


 

About Adam Priest –

A former Royal Marines Commando, Adam Priest is a content writer, college lecturer, and health and fitness coach. He is also a fitness author and contributor to other websites. Connect with Adam at info@hungry4fitness.co.uk.


 

References

Lustig, R. (2021) Metabolical. Yellow Kite. USA.


Spector, T. (2022) Food For Life. Penguin. UK.


Tulleken, C. (2023) Ultra-Processed People. Cornerstone Press. UK.


Mail Online: Eating one pack a day is like drinking FIVE LITRES of cooking oil a year: The frightening truth about crisps.


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