The AtlanticThe Atlantic

Beware of the food that isn’t food

By Helen Lewis

21 May 2023 · 8 min read

informed Summary

  1. Chris van Tulleken has written a book about ultra-processed food (UPF) and its effects on our bodies. As part of the research, he ate a UPF-heavy diet for a month. “In just a few weeks, I felt like I’d aged ten years. I was aching, exhausted, miserable and angry.”

Chris van Tulleken refuses to tell me what to have for breakfast. “Everyone thinks that I have a strong opinion about what they should eat,” he tells me, as I hesitate between the eggs Benedict and the full English. “And I have almost no opinion.”

Now, this isn’t quite true. When I tell him later that I’ve decided that the occasional full-sugar cola is probably better than multiple diet sodas every day, he replies: “Enjoy the phosphoric acid leaching the minerals out of your bones.” Which sounds a little judgmental, if I’m honest. (Soft drinks have been linked to bone fractures, but their manufacturers dispute that there is a causal relationship.) There’s a very good reason that van Tulleken refuses to dictate my breakfast order: He has just published a book identifying ultra-processed food, or UPF, as a great evil in our diets, and has therefore signed up for a lifetime of being portrayed as a joyless, middle-class puritan who wants us to live on mung beans and kombucha. As part of the research for Ultra-processed People, he ate a UPF-heavy diet for a month—a stunt reminiscent of Morgan Spurlock’s Super Size Me, and one open to the same criticism about replacing science with showmanship. “By the fourth week, it had started to have very noticeable physical effects, forcing me to loosen my belt by two notches,” he writes. “In just a few weeks, I felt like I’d aged ten years. I was aching, exhausted, miserable and angry.”

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