A man ate junk food for a month: how it affected his health
TV presenter Chris van Tulleken has set himself the task of following a diet consisting mainly of processed foods (semi-finished products) for a month. What came of it, said the publication with the BBC.
It is believed that more than half of the energy the British get from food coming from highly processed foods. There are fears that such food makes people eat more and gain weight. It is estimated that in Britain one in four adults and one in five children aged 10-11 are obese.
“I wanted to know how a diet high in processed foods would affect me,” says Chris van Tulleken, host of What Are We Feeding Our Children?
The effects of processed foods on the human body, especially children and adolescents who eat more processed foods than the average adult, have been relatively poorly researched.
For the experiment shown in the program, Chris increased his typical processed food intake from about 30% to 80% over four weeks.
“Looks extreme, but this is the diet of one in five Britons,” he says.
"I feel ten years older"
A month later, Chris's sleep and mood deteriorated, heartburn began, anxiety and lethargy developed, and his libido decreased. He also developed hemorrhoids from constipation.
“I felt 10 years older, but I didn't realize it was all about food until I stopped following this diet,” he says.
Chris put on almost 7 kg in four weeks and formally fell into the "overweight" category. “If I had been gaining weight at this rate for six months, I would have gained almost 40 kg,” he says.
But that's not all.
Brain scans have shown that areas of Chris' brain that are responsible for reward have made connections with areas responsible for repetitive automatic behavior.
“My brain just tells me to eat processed food even if I don’t want to,” he says, and explains that this is how the brain reacts to the use of substances that we traditionally consider addictive: cigarettes, alcohol and drugs.
The changes in brain activity did not become permanent. "But if my 42-year-old brain suffered so much in four weeks, what happens to the brains of our children?" He asks.
We don't know exactly why processed foods have this effect, but Chris believes most hypotheses boil down to a combination of physical processing and nutritional composition.
How much do we eat
Chris discussed the results of the diet with Kevin Gall, a senior researcher at the National Institutes of Health. Hall conducted an experiment in which volunteers were offered two diets that were the same in fat, sugar, salt, and fiber, but one consisted of unprocessed foods and the other about 80% ultra-processed foods. Participants could eat as much food as they wanted.
The study found that people who ate processed foods averaged over 500 more calories daily and gained almost a kilogram in two weeks. Blood tests have shown an increase in the level of the hormone responsible for feeling hungry and a decrease in the level of the hormone that makes us feel full. These results confirmed the experience of Chris - the content of hunger hormones in his body during the experiment increased by 30%, which may have affected the amount of food consumed.
Hall also found that those who ate processed foods ate much faster than those who ate unprocessed foods, and this may have contributed to their calorie intake. Chris also felt something similar - in his words, "many products were so easy to chew and swallow." Previous research has shown that eating slowly can reduce hunger.
"It's really hard to stop eating."
“I found myself wanting to eat much more often,” said Chris. Other studies have shown that certain foods, such as pizza, chocolate, chips and cakes, can cause an overwhelming urge to eat, a loss of control, and an inability to eat less.
There is evidence that foods high in carbohydrates and fat (like processed foods) can activate the brain centers responsible for reward, emotion, and motivation. Brain research shows that the more often you enjoy food, the more you need to eat to get the same amount of pleasure.
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Many ultra-processed foods have been tested in various focus groups. They tested people's reactions to taste, salinity, mouthfeel, and even the sound the product makes when consumed. “I don’t think the manufacturers are deliberately trying to force us to get better,” says Chris. "But good food has a side effect: it's really hard to stop eating."
All processed foods should be avoided
Foods can be categorized as unprocessed or minimally processed (such as tomatoes), processed (canned tomatoes), and ultra-processed (store-bought tomato pasta sauce). Some of these foods are healthier than others — whole grain breakfast cereals, sliced whole grain breads, canned baked beans, and unsweetened soy or herbal drinks — all have been deeply processed but retain their nutrients. Prepared pasta sauces, prepared meals, spreads, and cold cuts can also be helpful.
Some convenience foods have not been ultra-processed, but containing additives and chemicals that are not used in home cooking are likely to be processed. Because of affordability, convenience and marketing, it is "almost impossible" to give up such food, Chris says.
Nutritionist Ro Gantriss is convinced that while a diet high in ultra-processed foods is not recommended, if done infrequently, the health risks will be minimal. “Balance is at the core of a healthy diet,” she concluded.
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