Hunger Games: The food industry has mastered the art of making ultra-processed foods irresistible – and making you think they’re a healthy choice

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Delicious, debilitating, and deadly, ultra-processed foods (UPFs) can undermine your health in less than a month. That’s what happened to Chris van Tulleken, an infectious disease doctor at University College Hospital, London, who asked the question: What would happen to my health if I changed my diet from 20% UPF to 80%, for just 4 weeks?

Answer: He went from a “standard man in early middle age” to an overweight mess. He gained 14 lbs,  6.5 lbs of which was fat, grew a protruding stomach, developed a noticeably pudgier body and, as he puts it, “I have the increasing man boob.”

Other effects surfaced after a mere 10 days: constipation, and getting up in the morning feeling hungover which he attributes to the high salt and sugar content of UPFs. And by day 25, insomnia – waking up at 4 a.m. with heartburn, a headache, and hunger: “I feel like eating more food,” he says, bleary-eyed.

In fact, the constant craving for food was the primary feature of his experiment. For instance, when staring down a soupy-looking lasagna, he says, “I know when I finish this, I’m going to immediately want another one.” And later, he utters the line that threads the needle: “I’m not enjoying it, but I can’t stop” (To which his wife quips, “It’s a lot like marriage!”), while gobbling down pudding.

His loss of control is explained by 2 biological events – changes in brain connectivity and changes in hunger hormone levels – that occurred over the 4 weeks:

  • MRI brain scans showed the growth of new neural connections that linked the reward centers in the brain to the areas that drive repetitive automatic behavior, with the upshot that, “[E]ating UPF becomes something my brain tells me to do without me even wanting it,” van Tulleken says, adding, “Shockingly, this is something you might see in a person with addiction.”
  • Blood tests showed a 30% increase in the hormone that makes you hungry, ghrelin; and a decrease (they didn’t say how much) in leptin, the hormone that tells your brain that you’re full and to stop eating.

In other words, when it comes to eating UPF it’s all gas and no brakes.

The literature supports Chris van Tulleken’s one-man experiment. For example, nutritionist Mario Kratz’s excellent reporting on a recent study of 20 men & women who, when on a UPF diet, ate an “insane” 500 calories more a day. He describes this as “massively overeating . . . Thanksgiving style,” and, he says, they did so just to get the same level of fullness they felt when on a non-UPF diet.

Here’s the tricky bit, say Kratz and van Tulleken: more often than not we won’t recognize UPFs for what they are; to the contrary, we’ll even think they’re a healthy choice – for instance, cauliflower crackers, gluten free pizza crust, protein bars, and cholesterol-lowering breakfast cereal. Kratz offers further examples of UPFs that, importantly, go beyond the usual suspects of burgers, fries, and a shake:

‘energy’ and sports drinks; sweetened and flavored yogurts, including fruit yogurts; dairy drinks, including chocolate milk; sweetened juices – i.e. your morning OJ (you want the oranges); margarines and spreads; pre-prepared (packaged) meat, fish and vegetables; pre-prepared (packaged) poultry and fish ‘nuggets’ and ‘sticks’; packaged breads, hamburger and hot dog buns; breakfast cereals and bars; infant formulas & drinks, and meal replacement shakes (e.g. ‘slim fast’).

The key to food self-defense, says Kratz, is to look at the label and if you see something like the one below – run. Aside from being calorie-dense, the ingredients are there to make the food “hyperpalatable,” also known as the Dorito effect, where the food industry has mastered the art of engineering flavors to optimize the taste & texture of food – resulting in the constant craving and overeating experienced by Chris van Tulleken.

At the end of his monthlong endeavor Dr. van Tulleken asked leading obesity expert, Rachel Batterham of UCL (who oversaw his experiment), about the effect these foods have on children, since UPFs account for about two-thirds (64%) of what they eat.

“My concern is that children’s brains are still developing and they’re much more maleable than mine, which means the changes are likely to be even greater. Do we have any idea what that’s doing to them?”

“No,” said Professor Batterham.

But we can make an educated guess.

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