Ultra-processed Food and Addiction

We’re surrounded by a sea of contradictory information about what we should and shouldn’t be eating. Science tells us that fat can be both good and bad for us and it’s the same with dairy, meat and sugar. Even fruits and vegetables can be good or bad depending on whether they’re organic, cooked, raw, eaten in excess or not eaten enough.

We have the media and influencers sharing their opinions and then there’s the supermarkets with all their misleading ‘health’ claims; low fat, high fibre, low calorie, fat-free, high protein, plant based, free-from, nutritionist approved, sugar-free, healthier choice...

With ever-increasing confusion about what constitutes a healthy lifestyle and the growth of so called ‘healthy’ foods, making decisions about food has become stressful and overwhelming.

The Dictionary definition of food is, ‘any nutritious substance that people or animals eat or drink or that plants absorb in order to maintain life and growth’ and the definition of nutritious is ‘the provision of a high degree of nourishment’.

For thousands of years, we’ve eaten foods that fits these definitions - foods produced by nature; fruits, vegetables, grains, grass-fed meat, fish, dairy, eggs, beans and legumes. Foods grown by the sun and rain with minerals from the soil containing all the natural nourishment that our bodies were designed to run on.

When is food not food? When it's Ultra-Processed!

Most food is, to an extent, processed in some way; cooking, smoking, preserving and pickling are all methods of processing. Oils, butters, yogurt and cheese are all processed, as are flour and pasta and many of these processes have been around for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.

Problems arise when we consume food that is ultra-processed; foods created by scientists in labs and produced in factories. In the UK 50% - 60% of food consumed is ultra-processed (the highest in Europe) and the science appears to agree that ultra-processed food is detrimental to our health, although the jury is still out on why this is the case.

The base ingredients of ultra-processed foods are derived from natural ingredients, but are so heavily processed, manipulated and changed, they end up bearing little resemblance to their natural start point. The act of processing also removes all the nutrients, fibre and minerals that our bodies need to thrive.

Tim Spector, epidemiologist at King’s College, sums it up beautifully in his book ‘Spoon-Fed’:

“the ultra-processed nature of modern food generally means that the complex structure of the plant and animal cells is destroyed, turning it into a nutritionally empty mush that our body can process abnormally rapidly”.

Ultra-Processed Food Addiction - An Epidemic?

While we know that it’s beneficial to eat natural food, so many of us struggle to stop eating the ultra-processed foods. The reason we find it so difficult is because ultra-processed foods are highly addictive, and the food industry knows this.

The ‘Bliss Point’ is a term invented by food manufacturers and is the perfect combination of fat, salt and sugar; a combination not found in nature, but a man-made one that keeps us coming back for more; one that keeps us stuck in a cycle that’s hard to escape from.

Science now shows that ultra-processed foods act in the body in the same way that drugs and alcohol do, activating brain pathways in ways that natural food doesn’t. It’s really great to hear that The Public Health Collaboration are asking the World Health Organisation to recognise Food Addiction as a Substance Use Disorder.

So how do you know which foods are ultra-processed?

Obvious things like breakfast cereals and cereal bars, packaged bread and cakes, dehydrated noodles and pasta where you just need to add water, soft drinks, sports drinks, most pre-prepared food and replacement shakes are all ultra-processed.

Most gluten free food is also highly processed, as are most plant-based alternatives and meals. Look out for foods that might appear to be healthy, like yogurt, margarine and cooked meats as these can often be ultra-processed, made with artificial ingredients, flavour enhancers and additives.

Natural food doesn’t need a label claiming it’s good for your health, so when you see a label making ‘health’ claims there’s a good chance that the product is ultra-processed.

With people busier than ever, parents trying to feed their children, while holding down a job, switching from highly processed foods to more natural foods can be challenging. Cooking from scratch is time consuming and people with severe food addiction often just don’t have the energy to cook or prepare natural foods.

One way to help you become more aware of what’s really in the packaged foods that you’re buying, is to download an app such as Yuka. You can simply scan the barcodes on products for a quick snapshot of the positives, negatives and overall score. It can be a real eye-opener!

If you’re looking for some more tips and inspiration on how to cut down on sugar and processed foods and integrate more natural foods into your diet and lifestyle, join me on Substack where I share articles and newsletters via The Sweet Escape. It’s a safe community space open to everyone and free from advertisements and algorithms, so you can learn and also connect with others on your journey to food freedom. You can also find me on Instagram at Food Freedom Collective.

Mar 26, 2023
Nutrition & Food

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