This blog is a bit different from the ones I’ve done in the past. I had a lot of questions while listening to a radio program, therefore decided to write about it.

I was listening to a CBC program a few weeks ago and a middle-aged British doctor was talking about the ill effects of ultra-processed foods (aka UPFs) on people, particularly children.  A few years ago, this doctor did a month-long self-experiment to get a better understanding of the link between rapid weight gain and processed foods. According to the New York Post, he “ate a strict diet of frozen pizza, fried chicken, fish sticks, cereals and other ready-made foods.” He shared the astounding physical and mental impacts with listeners. At the time, various media outlets covered his story.

Over his month-long experiment, he gained 14 pounds in 28 days. He also experienced heartburn, decreased libido, hemorrhoids, depression to name a few side-effects from his extreme diet. He said he felt like he aged 10 years and still noticed the psychological impacts months later. The doctor has been calling for companies to put health warning labels on ultra-processed foods (many other experts have been doing the same over the years).

If you are wondering what UPFs are, it is foods that are highly processed, industrially produced, or re-engineered. UPFs are often high in salt, sugar, hydrogenated fats, food additives, colouring and preservatives. The more popular ones are for example, breads, biscuits, sweet and savoury packaged foods, sweetened breakfast cereals, soft drinks, reconstructed meats, flavoured yogurts, ice-cream, instant sauces, and much more.

I must admit, I listened to this interview rather quizzically.  Yes, much research has shown the negative impacts of ultra processed foods, some even going as far as expressing their concerns that it may be widening the gap between low- and middle-income households (massed-produced ultra processed foods are often more affordable). Yet we must be careful about drawing cause-and-effect conclusions, especially when it comes to the weight gain aspect.

Eating ultra-processed foods may not be the sole factor behind the weight gain (and the other effects that the doctor experienced). The doctor was over-consuming ultra-processed foods daily.  His ultra-processed foods diet was extreme, with I would posit, little or no physical activity. High caloric intake, with little or no physical activity, will result in weight gain, whether one is consuming healthy foods or ultra processed foods. Yes, the cumulative effects of excessive consumption of ultra-processed foods are clear, in particular the adverse health effects over the long-term. These concerns are valid. At the same time, we must look at this more holistically, particularly with the consumption of ultra-processed foods on the rise across many countries, notwithstanding income levels.

This warrants deeper exploration. Starting with for example, how can governments and communities, working with organizations make unprocessed or lightly processed foods (both healthier options), more accessible and affordable for all households?
Lightly processed include tuna, beans, tomatoes, fruits and more – that are frozen or canned at their peak. They often have one or two ingredients, however, often not more than four.

Creating healthier and more affordable options will be critical over the long term. It will also require a behaviour change. This means providing positive, sustainable incentives, information and programs that foster a healthy living mindset, and make it easier for people to live a healthier lifestyle – which includes a balanced diet, regular exercise, that leads to positive mental health. All important for holistic health over the long run. What you eat and how much you eat are key.

Have questions on how you can eat healthier or about healthy living in general? Share them with us and we will provide you with the response here in our blog. Also let us know your thoughts about this topic.


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(A big thanks to photo by sk on Unsplash)

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