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How 'Ultra-Processed People' by Chris van Tulleken - changed what I eat; by Jamie King

Updated: Jun 20

"If you are living with obesity, it isn't due to a lack of will power, it isn't your fault."

Chris van Tulleken


On the day I finished reading Chris van Tulleken’s book ‘Ultra-Processed People’, I popped into in my local high street supermarket, and witnessed a brazen broad daylight robbery of a supermarket basket full of ‘UPF’ ( Ultra-Processed Food). Two young guys loaded up their baskets with pizzas, bread, crisps, ready made burgers, cooked sausages, ham, crisps, and cans of fizzy drinks. It looked like a desperate attempt to feed a hungry family. 

 

I thought, is it okay to feel sorry for people who are so impoverished that they’re forced to steal food from a local shop, but then who are taking food that is possibly so bad for them and their family that ultimately it won’t do them much good?

 

Probably, I should I feel sympathy for the supermarket who are in good faith supplying commodities to customers and expecting them to pay for their goods in a simple contract of buying and selling. Clearly their profits will be hugely affected by what is something of an epidemic of shoplifting taking place across the country. However, any concern we may have for them has to be tempered by the fact that they, along with all the other huge food companies and supermarkets around the world, knowingly supply and sell food that is both addictive and bad for our general health. Indeed, this small high street supermarket is probably 80% if not more ultra-processed food with very few whole foods or fresh products for sale at all. Unsurprisingly their more expensive meat products are often out of sight because they get stolen very quickly.

 

My personal journey through van Tulleken’s (VT) book led me to that rare moment of standing outside looking up and wanting to shout ‘I believe!’. And just feeling as if I wanted to share the experience... VT suggests that we indulge in a UPF rich diet so that we might be disgusted by the impact this has on our bodies as it did on his when he tried a 100% UPF diet for a month. The idea here is that we may ultimately be repulsed enough to turn away completely as we realise there is nothing to chew, no full-up feeling, and an impending sugar low will inevitably make us even hungrier.

 

I didn’t follow this but I did recognise the impact UPF has on me and my behaviour around certain food. I became super focussed as I read on. My personal diet was probably something in the region of 30% ultra- processed, maybe not too bad when VT suggests that the UK as a whole is probably already consuming a 60% UPF diet. I am fortunate enough to live in a house where both myself and my wife are foodies and will cook from scratch, but I also recognised an issue for myself with some foods. Like VT, I have an addiction to savoury snacks and spicy food, but also bread, crisps, takeaway sandwiches and pizzas. This is easily Identified through licking the inside of a family bag of  ‘Chilli Sensations’ and regularly finishing a tub of delicious, creamy supermarket taramasalata in one sitting.

 

The genius of VTs book is to explain that this food is strategically and intentionally designed to be addictive and to stimulate the genes in those of us who are obsessed by food and need little encouragement to overeat. This realisation has helped me to focus my attention on the food industry and to make some changes to my eating habits. I have not knowingly eaten UPF for 3 months.

 

If you try this, you will experience and understand how very difficult it is as traces of modified starches, stabilisers, artificial sweeteners, preservatives, emulsifiers, gums, and flavourings are everywhere. These ingredients are especially well hidden where you think a 'healthy' low fat or sugar-free option might be.

 

VT discusses Carlos Monteiro’s NOVA 4 classification of UPF and this is helpful to consider although long winded. In short, ‘...processes and ingredients designed to make highly profitable, hyper palatable products, to displace fresh whole foods’, think shop bought oat milk or chicken nuggets. VT suggests 2 simple rules as you seek to identify UPF; was it made with love to nourish you? Do you have the ingredients at home in your own kitchen? If not, it’s probably UPF.

 

This is a tricky space to navigate and leads you to a world of reading the tiny print of ingredient lists on packages. This is almost impossible without your reading glasses and it makes you wonder if it is done deliberately. It is also time consuming and slows down shopping which is not a chore I particularly enjoy!

 

In the first 3 to 4 weeks of eating no UPF, I felt irritated and frustrated, as if I had tried to go on a fad diet or stop drinking for dry January. I suspect my body was craving the salt, sugar and fat contained in UPF and certainly my go to 'healthy' option of 2 x egg and tomato sandwiches from M&S, when I am on the run, was now off-limits after I took a closer look at the ingredient lists on supermarket sandwiches.

 

After 4 weeks, the agitation subsided and I started to ease into my new diet aware that the very expensive bread from the local sourdough bakery or our home-made type is very chewy and reassuringly time consuming to eat. This chewability of food is also a marker to identify UPF. UPF dissolves quickly in your mouth and is consumed too readily for the body to process.

 

I often think back to the basket of stolen food, with the various items of UPF food and drink. The two guys took it to the self scan counter, and then without attempting to pay carried their neatly packed carrier bags from the checkout and walked straight through the security barrier and out of the shop. I watched as the one lone shop attendant did nothing and simply came to print the receipt and file it on the counter with the others. As I watched, I felt conflicted, this was truly a situation where there was no winner, and despite their apparent success they hadn't stolen any real food. I wondered how funny, given similar circumstances, my basket of natural Greek Yogurt, fresh fruit, steak, chicken thighs, extra virgin olive oil, unsalted pistachios, chillies, green veg and 85% cocoa dark chocolate might seem.


In fact, as VT points out on a number of occasions, it highlights the real issue at play here, which is that this is all underpinned by social inequality and that many people are forced to eat UPF, as it’s all they can afford and is available in the shops. Even if people do want to cook and prepare their own meals there are wider questions such as access to an equipped kitchen and the ability to cook at all.


Picture - Homemade Basil Drop cocktails - inspired by Sichuan Citizen - French Concession, Shanghai. DM me for the recipe. UPF or not?

 

The book doesn’t really cover two key areas for me. I’d like to understand more about processed meats, cheeses and fish, of the kind we have been eating since long before UPF, from what VT describes as the 2nd age of eating. Similarly, the relationship between alcoholic drinks, which again hail from the 2nd age of eating but are increasingly full of additives and preservatives. 

 

While it is fair to say that I have lost a little bit of weight this was not my aim. I am sleeping really well and feel sharper and have more energy. My blood pressure has dipped slightly especially the diastolic reading. It’s impossible to be 100% UPF free if you are living and working as a normal person. My understanding of UPF is still limited and I refer to the Carlos Monteiro NOVA classification in full for reference. I do feel that VT is onto something very important here and it’s incumbent on all of us to support the journey to challenge globalisation, big business, free-market economics, the nutrition industry and research groups that influence us to buy manufactured food products at the expense of whole-food products.


VT is campaigning for regulation and interestingly it seems that the UK is already lagging behind on this. I guess not surprising when we can’t even regulate to keep our water clean!

I see it as an achievement of wonder to imagine how you might persuade the whole population to buy UPF in the name of health, but it has happened to us time and time again. It would seem that as consumers we are more gullible than we realise.


Food that has a brand name, its own marketing campaigns and its own image should be suspicious to us. We are unlikely to experience such time, care and effort over marketing say a mushroom from a farm. But that’s what we should eat! Mushrooms with eggs in an omelette for breakfast. Stacy’s Mum, Gwen (Gavin and Stacey) would be proud! Smithy (Jamie) needs to leave the shop bought Bhuna on the shelf…


Ultra-Processed People – Why Do We All Eat Stuff That Isn’t Food… and Why Can’t we Stop

Chris van Tulleken – Penguin Books 2023.

 

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