Cutting down on how much UPF we Eat

UPF, ultra processed food, if you haven’t heard about it yet you probably soon will – there was a BBC article on it when I first started writing this (read here) and a Panorama programme on iPlayer now (not watched it yet but link is here).

The two of us have had UPF on a radar for quite a while, starting with this Radio 4 programme last year with Chris van Tullleken (who’s now written Ultra-Processed People) and continuing with the work done by Dr Tim Spector with his ZOE research.

We’ve increasingly been finding in our own lives that we come across friends telling us ‘someone they know’ is trying to cut down the amount of ultra processed foods they eat and then we end up having a discussion about it which is great. It’s definitely becoming more talked about, but it’s also easy to start thinking that everyone knows what it is and is on the same journey, which obviously is not true at all.

One thing that struck me when I read the BBC article is just how easy it is to read it and think either a) I don’t eat enough of these ‘bad’ foods for it to be harmful (regardless of how factually true or not this is – one thing about UPF is it’s pretty much impossible to avoid so we’re all definitely eating a lot more of it than we realise) b) I’ve eaten them for years now and am ok c) how could I / my family possibly give up these foods – they are too tasty / too big a part of our daily lives / create too much work / are too expensive to replace.

This last point here I think is especially interesting. There’s something in behavioural science called ‘loss aversion’ where the loss of something you have feels much worse than the equivalent gain.

One definition of loss aversion is that: ‘Loss aversion can prevent individuals, corporations, and countries from making riskier decisions to address complex challenges. Though risk-aversion is important, it can also prevent the implementation of innovative, and partially riskier solutions’ (taken from thedecisionlab).

They go on to say that loss aversion can be avoided by ‘re-framing the question of loss when making decisions, identifying worst-case scenarios, and rationalizing those decisions.’ Or to put it another way, we need to remind ourselves of what’s at stake, what’s most important (presumably living well and avoiding sickness as much as we possibly can is something we all want for ourselves?).

As an aside, I think this is one of the big problems with addressing sustainability / environmental challenges too. People can be really passionate about ‘doing the right thing’ but actually when it comes to day to day decisions, if it’s too hard, ie there isn’t a simple/easy/acceptable alternative option, then it means far fewer people will follow through on what they intend to. Loss aversion plays a role here, as we don’t want to lose our habits / routines / ways of doing things that we are used to and we enjoy – we don’t want to give them up in the moment.

So, coming back to UPF, assuming we get to a point where most people accept that it’s not a good thing but it tastes good (and is designed to keep us coming back for more!). How then might we cut down on the amount of UPF we eat? Here’s some thoughts I’ve just come up with – drawing on what we do, lots more I’m sure!

  • Doing our best: Focus on reducing/doing my best each day, breaking into achievable goals, not looking too far ahead and not beating myself up if I do have a UPF-filled day (this is most likely to be if staying away from home/out and about – so hard to find ‘real’ food when you’re on the go).
  • One thing at a time: Replacing one UPF item each day/week rather than trying to get rid all at once and going cold turkey. For example, if I buy flavoured yogurts, replacing them with natural yoghurt and adding my own honey or jam (ideally home-made without preservatives) or fresh fruit is way better. Equally, plain crisps tend to be much better than flavoured ones in terms of UPF.
  • Prioritising home-made / from scratch: Making/baking as much as I can reminds me (and my child) how much sugar/butter etc goes in but also how much work is involved so I eat less of it. And it means that the sweet treat in the tin is ‘better than’ supermarket UPF alternative. Watch out – in the supermarket when it says ‘home-made’ on a pacakaged item it doesn’t necessarily mean no UPF (it’s a trick!)
  • Reading packets: We read packets all the time now and try to choose, if there is a choice, the option without a long ingredient list or things in there we wouldn’t have in our kitchen at home. It’s a mine-field and the messages on the front tell us nothing, as an example Merchant Gourmet lentils are 100% wholefood / no UPF and yet from the front of the pack look no different in terms of messaging to, say, a jar of pasta sauce containing emulsifiers and preservatives that may say soemthing like ‘no added sugar, high in fibre/Vitamin x etc etc’
  • Reminders: Of what’s important, why it’s important , the long term perspective ie true inner health, not just the idea of ‘being healthy’ (which I think conjures up idea of fad diets and gym memberships that only drop off after a month)
  • Being just a bit more mindful: After school / on the go snacks and picnics are tricky times, as so much is UPF. It’s very easy to turn to packaged bits to make life easy but we’re trying to limit those as much as we can, depending a bit on what the situation is. Things like bread sticks, rice cakes, nuts, raisins, home-made snacks are not UPF and do really well on these occasions.
  • Bread! We have a bread maker and this means we know exactly what goes into every loaf of bread we make. As soon as we’re buying packaged bread items -including rolls – from supermarket then we’re into big UPF territory.
  • Maxxing our fruit and veg box: Really championing our box each week – how can we use the things in it to avoid us eating more UPF than we need to?

Would love to hear thoughts on this from those of you already on the same journey! Anything else you do to help you reduce the UPF you / your family eat? Would love to study this more, find it fascinating.

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