Are you guilty of the following erroneous belief?
I will never find any other sources of pleasure or satisfaction in my life to
replace the bad habits that are undermining my health.
Some people are quite aware that they hold this belief, and will even state
it out loud. Others are less conscious of believing it, but the struggle they
experience whenever they attempt to give up their ‘vice’ reveals the truth.
Deep down inside, they’re afraid they’ll never find anything that’s as
pleasurable – or that numbs their pain as effectively – as the junk food
that’s killing them.
A study conducted in France and published just last month found that the
more ‘ultraprocessed’ food that middle-aged and older adults ate, the
higher was their likelihood of dying prematurely.
In fact, for every 10% increase in the proportion of overall energy
(kilojoules/calories) intake derived from ultraprocessed foods in the diets of
the nearly 45 000 French men and women aged 45 years and up who were
included in this study, there was a 14% increase in all-cause mortality, or
the risk of dying from any cause.
What exactly is ultraprocessed food? It’s defined by NOVA, an international
food classification system, as “ready-to-eat or -heat formulations made
mostly from ingredients [as distinct from actual food] usually combined
Specifically, ultraprocessed foods usually contain multiple ingredients and
are manufactured through a multitude of industrial processes. They are
designed to be convenient (eaten as is, straight out of the package, or
simply reheated), cheap, and hyperpalatable.
Their other key characteristics are sophisticated and attention-getting
packaging, aggressive marketing – especially to children and adolescents,
health claims that focus on particular ingredients (“high in protein”; “now
with added calcium” and the like), high profitability, and branding and
ownership by transnational corporations.
Examples of ultraprocessed food include:
- Carbonated drinks;
- Sweet or savoury packaged snacks such as chips;
- Confectionery such as chocolate and sweets;
- Mass-produced packaged breads and buns;
- Margarines and spreads;
- Cookies and biscuits, pastries, cakes, and cake mixes;
- Ready-to-eat breakfast ‘cereals’;
- ‘Cereal’ and ‘energy’ bars;
- ‘Energy’ drinks;
- Milk drinks, ‘fruit’ yoghurts and ‘fruit’ drinks;
- Cocoa drinks such as Milo;
- Meat and chicken extracts and ‘instant’ sauces;
- Infant formulas, follow-on milks, and other baby food products;
- ‘Health’ and ‘slimming’ products such as powdered or ‘fortified’ meal and dish substitutes;
- Pre-prepared pies and pasta and pizza dishes;
- Poultry and fish ‘nuggets’ and ‘sticks’, sausages, burgers, hot dogs, and other reconstituted meat products; and
- Powdered and packaged ‘instant’ soups, noodles and desserts.
Or in other words, the foods that make up the bulk of what you can see in
the average shopping trolley… especially in families with children and
99% of Aussie kids don’t eat enough vegetables – and their parents aren’t
much better. The average Australian derives one-third of daily energy
intake from ultraprocessed foods, and among teenagers, it’s more than
And that’s a huge worry, because if eating ultraprocessed food in middle
age can shorten your life expectancy, what is eating this stuff from an early
age going to do to the health and longevity potential of our kids?
While the carefully-designed packaging and sophisticated marketing of
these food products is cynically intended to hook kids’ attention at an early
age, when they lack the discernment to distinguish between marketing
hype and reality (mind you, plenty of adults still seem to struggle with this),
the most addictive and destructive characteristic of ultraprocessed foods is
What is hyperpalatability? It’s a set of characteristics in food – primarily,
concentrations of sugar, fat, and salt that are beyond those found in any
whole, natural food – that essentially overrides our innate ability to
recognise when we’ve had enough, and stop eating.
Hypopalatable foods actively discourage overeating. Vegetables in general
are hypopalatable, when prepared simply and without seasoning – no
matter how much you enjoy broccoli, you’re never tempted to eat 3 heads
of it in one sitting.
Palatable foods occur in nature, are more energy-dense than hypopalatable
foods and are tasty enough to make us want to moderately overeat them
because in the food energy-poor setting of our ancestors, laying down a
little extra body fat in seasons of abundance would help you survive
seasons of scarcity. They do this by causing the release of brain chemicals
that generate feelings of pleasure and reward. However, we have a
complex range of mechanisms, called the ‘lipostat’, that help our brains
sense how much body fat we’ve accumulated, so that our appetite will
naturally decline and spontaneous activity will increase once we’ve packed
on too many pounds.
Hyperpalatable foods are not found in nature, and by overstimulating the
pleasure centres of the brain, they disable the mechanisms that normally
allow us to experience ‘satiety’ – the sense of fullness or satisfaction that
we get after we’ve eaten sufficient kilojoules and micronutrients – as well
as sabotaging the lipostat.
As a result, hyperpalatable foods drive us to seriously overeat on them
whenever they are available, sometimes even to the point of feeling
physically ill, and to keep on overeating them no matter how much weight
we gain (and how much health, vitality and self-respect we lose) from this
Now does the nagging fear “I will never find any other sources of pleasure
or satisfaction in my life to replace these foods that are undermining my
health” make more sense to you? That’s the desperate cry of a brain that
has been utterly hijacked by ultraprocessed foods.
Rescuing that hijacked brain takes time and work. There are three key
Removing all hyperpalatable foods from the diet. The notion that these
foods are ‘treats’ and that you ‘deserve’ them because you’ve worked
hard/sweated at the gym/been under a lot of stress/whatever excuse you
care to think of, is simply a false narrative that has been implanted in our
collective unconscious by powerful multinational corporations who have
their bottom line, not our health and happiness, in mind. There is simply no
good reason to put anything in your mouth that undermines your health
and well-being. Think about it – for how long did you feel good after you
ate your last mouthful of ice cream? Did that packet of chips really make
you feel better about your life? Did the fast food meal fix your broken
relationship or make your boss less of a jerk? Of course not. All we’re doing
when we eat these foods is anaesthetising our pain and distracting
ourselves from what we actually need to do to improve our lives and
reclaim our health.
Commencing every meal with a large serving of hypopalatable foods, such
as vegetables, prepared as simply as possible – for example, a platter of
vegetable crudités, a salad with a dash of lemon juice or vinegar, or a plate
of steamed vegetables, served without any sauce of salt. Less enticing than
what you currently eat? Absolutely – that’s the point! After taking the edge
off your appetite with your hypopalatable starter, you can follow up with
more palatable foods such as seasoned rice and beans, baked vegetables or
soup. I promise you that these foods will taste absolutely amazing after
eating hypopalatable foods, because those foods set your ‘pleasure
thermostat’ at a fairly low level, but you’ll have much less of a tendency to
even moderately overeat the more palatable foods.
Keep your food boring, and your life interesting.
Our brains are wired to derive untold pleasure from physical activity, social
connection, intimacy in all its forms, and perhaps most importantly, from
purpose-driven activities. I can’t sum this last point up any better than a
formula for fulfilment:
Work your butt off to get very good at something that you care deeply
about, that allows you to serve not only yourself but other people [and/or,
we would suggest, animals or the environment].
When our bodies receive the nourishing food, restorative sleep and
appropriate activity that they need, our relationships are healthy and
nourishing, and we feel ‘on purpose’ in our lives, there’s simply no need for
the false fix of hyperpalatable foods.
If you put your efforts into having a life worth living, sooner or later you’ll
discover that there are no foods worth dying for.