Are you drawn to fizzy drinks of all colours or ice-cream that doesn’t seem to melt? Emma Maitland-Carew looks at why ultra processed food is so damaging to our bodies and how we can recognise it.

I am often asked ‘What is the one thing would you recommend if I am interested in improving my diet and health?’ While there are so many simple things we can do which can make a big impact on improving our health and wellbeing, the first thing I would say is to eliminate ultra-processed foods (UPFs) from your diet.


Source: Photo by Towfiqu barbhuiya on Pexels

Why do I identify UPFs as one of the first things to change? Because for many people in the West today, almost 80% of their calories are in the form of ultra-processes food and UPFs can often hide behind ‘healthy’ labels and misleading descriptions.

Our world today is in a nutritional crisis and we have a pandemic of diet-related diseases. 

Our world today is in a nutritional crisis and we have a pandemic of diet-related diseases. Take a look at a beach scene from the US fifty years ago and compare it to today. The majority of people were slim, toned and happy, whereas today the majority of people carry a lot more weight, have less muscle mass and feel tired, depressed or anxious.

To explain, UPFs are not what we would traditionally call ‘food’ and previous generations would not recognise them as food. Ice-cream that does not melt? Meat in a burger that looks the same even when left for weeks? Soft drinks in all fluorescent colours of the rainbow?

UPFs are like junk food, but even more processed, refined, chemically enhanced and addictive. 

UPFs are like junk food, but even more processed, refined, chemically enhanced and addictive. According to the late Dr. Michael Mosley, BBC presenter and bestselling author of The Fast Diet, UPFs are ‘edible substances with strange sounding ingredients which are manufactured by some of the wealthiest companies on the planet’.

Why are they so bad? UPFs carry health risks such as obesity, cancer, metabolic diseases, mental illnesses, dementia and inflammatory bowel disease.

UPFs wreak havoc on the microbes in our gut and because they are very addictive it makes it hard to eat a single serving – and they are sold in ever-increasing sizes to keep us eating more. They are linked to the leading cause of early death globally.

They are also linked to adverse impact on climate change, antibiotic resistance, and plastic pollution caused by the industrial production and global consumption of these foods. Many see them as the number one cause of environmental destruction. In addition, UPFs are directly linked to unscrupulous and greedy mega-companies. These products are specifically engineered to behave as addictive substances, driving excess consumption. They are a result of industrial food production, where corporations vie for profit by creating addictive, low-cost, and convenient products

How to identify UPFs? Basically, if it is wrapped in plastic or has more than a few ingredients that you don’t recognise and at least one ingredient is one that you wouldn’t find in your kitchen, then you can be pretty sure it is a UPF and the best thing you can do for your health is to eliminate them from your diet completely.

You can find out more in Chris van Tulleken’s book Ultra-Processed People: The Science Behind Food That Isn’t Food His book is a manifesto to change how you eat and how you think about the human body. He explains how ultra-processed foods have led to a health crisis, but the book is engaging and not discouraging because as he says, the health crisis is not your fault, it is the food! 

While many people feel guilty about putting on weight, or buying lots of unhealthy junk food or convenient take-aways, Chris does not employ this as a tactic to make the reader feel bad. He points the finger squarely at the faulty system that fills our shops with UPFs and at the greedy global industries that put profits above health.

You might think you already eat very healthily and you may think that you don’t eat much junk food and therefore you are okay. However, the insidious nature of UPFs means that some products that come with healthy labels may actually still contain UPFs.

Here are some sure ways to ensure you do not become addicted to them or compromise your health:

1. Where you can, chose fresh, healthy fruit and vegetables from farmers’ markets over packaged/processed products in supermarkets.

2. Check the ingredient lists on everything you buy. You might like to use an app, such as the Yuka app which I recently trialled. Another one is ‘Think Dirty’. Be aware, however, that it may still flag things as healthy that are not and vice versa – I did notice a few instances of this and made a mental note to still check ingredient lists myself!

3.  Prioritise foods that are nutrient-dense, rather than foods that have unnatural flavourings and colourings to create energy-dense foods that taste good but are nutrient-poor.

4. Stay away from foods that have lots of sugar, refined flour, and seed oils. Be aware that sugars to avoid include: fructose, corn syrup, fruit juice concentrates, invert sugar, dextrose, lactose.

5. Be suspicious of unverified health claims on fancy packaging, including claims such as “high in fibre” or “source of protein.”

6. Avoid foods with lots of cosmetic additives such as flavour enhancers, colours, emulsifiers, sweeteners, thickeners, and/or foaming, gelling and glazing agents.

I hope this has given you some idea of where to start in identifying and eliminating ultra-processed foods from your life and I am sure you will see the difference in your health and wellbeing as a result!

Please do your own research and consult with your medical professionals before making drastic changes to your diet.