Toxic bliss

Hypnotherapist Karen Martin looks at the issue of ultra-processed foods and how you can kick the habit of including them in your diet, resulting in a healthier, happier you…

What do chicken nuggets, vegetarian sausages, gluten-free bread, breakfast biscuits, pasta sauces and ready meals have in common? They are all Ultra Processed Foods (UPFs). The difference is that some of them are convenience foods and others are what are described as functional foods, formulated in a science lab to meet the demand for healthy products.

All are saturated with high quantities of fat, salt or sugar. These ingredients make poor-quality convenience foods taste better and functional foods more palatable. This fundamental dishonesty has everything to do with food industry profits and little to do with the health of the consumer. Added to that, functional foods are marketed as being good for us when they’re often far from it.

The power of advertising

Manufacturers and retailers have developed highly sophisticated marketing methods to hypnotise buyers into parting with their cash. Advertising, packaging design and product placement in stores all beguile the consumer with the temptation to make unnecessary purchases or impulse buys.

Brand loyalty is a powerful influence, with cheaper equivalent products being rejected for no other reason than a misguided perception of packaged, processed foods being better quality or tastier than fresh ingredients.

UPFs and obesity

The damaging consequences of the prevalence of UPFs in our supermarket aisles are far-reaching. In recent years, obesity has reached epidemic levels, with over 650 million adults worldwide now classified as obese. This has led to a growing interest in understanding the factors that contribute to obesity, including the role of UPFs and their potentially addictive properties.

Defined as food products that are made from industrial formulations, UPFs contain little or no whole foods. Examples include soft drinks, processed meats, and sugary snacks. These foods are often high in calories and are typically low in fibre and other essential nutrients. Food manufacturers know that their nutritionally deficient ingredients are a recipe for high profits.

UPFs are proven to be bad for our health, increasing the risk of obesity, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. The ‘hyperpalatable’ nature of UPFs makes it hard to stop eating once you start. This is because they create a ‘bliss point’ or delicious ‘mouth feel’ which overrides any feelings of fullness.

Are you a sugar junkie?

Studies have found that UPFs can trigger the same brain pathways as drugs of abuse like cocaine and heroin. This can lead to cravings, overconsumption, and difficulty in controlling intake. The high levels of sugar and fat in UPFs can cause changes in the brain’s reward system, leading to a cycle of addiction and overeating.

The poor are vulnerable to the addictive properties of UPFs as they are most likely to rely on fast food for affordable meals. Children are easily hooked on pizzas, nuggets, crisps and sweets, setting them up for a lifetime of unhealthy eating.

Break the habits

Given that the packaging of UPFs can cost more to produce than the contents, the buyer is getting a raw deal. There are some simple shopping hacks to eat delicious, healthier food which tastes better than the processed stuff, packs more of a nutritional punch and is no more hassle to prepare.

• If you’re buying packaged food, read the ingredients label and a good general rule is, if there are more than five additives, don’t buy it.

• A tin of tomatoes or coconut milk and herbs and spices from the cupboard are much healthier and cheaper than pasta or curry sauce jars.

• Don’t fall for BOGOFs (buy one get one free) or bulk discounted bargains if you’re only going to throw half away.

• If you buy too much food, you’ll overeat. Only buy what you need.

• Make a list and stick to it. Say no to impulse buys.

• Cut back on snack foods, baked goods and cereals. They’re all UPF.

• If something is marketed as low sugar, it’s probably high fat. If something is low fat, it’s probably high sugar. If it says it’s low-calorie, it’s probably smaller than a Twix.

• Don’t bulk buy savoury snacks or sweet treats. They’re only treats if you don’t have them every day.

• Avoid going down the confectionery, biscuits, cake and snack aisles.

• If you’re gluten intolerant, vegetarian or vegan, beware of specifically marketed UPFs like meat-free burgers or GF processed food. They’re often high in fat, sugar or salt so stick to fresh ingredients when possible.

• Learn to love cooking and stick to fresh ingredients when possible, whatever your tastes or preferences.

The Government has already taken measures to restrict the sugar content in fizzy drinks. But this is barely addressing the economic reality of a powerful food industry deciding what we put on our plates. Celebrity chef Jamie Oliver has done much to educate our palates and give us great hacks for healthy eating. The ‘Delia’ effect inspired cooks to try new ingredients when the telly cook recommended them in her recipes.

And now that UPFs are being highlighted as a major contributor to obesity, maybe habits will start to change and consumer power will dictate how the food we eat is produced and make fresh ingredients the first choice.

Taking back control

When people come to me for help with controlling their eating habits or reducing weight, there are simple strategies that make a huge difference. Hypnotherapy helps eliminate cravings, break addictions to hyperpalatable UPFs and establish healthier habits and behaviours.

Most people I see know what they should be eating but have little control over cravings caused by eating processed food. When we eat, for example, toast or cereal for breakfast, or a meal deal for lunch that includes a sandwich, crisps and a fizzy drink, blood sugar skyrockets, causing an energy surge followed by a crash which sets off the craving cycle.

Sometimes, going cold turkey and eliminating starches and sugars for a while is an effective way to break the pattern and achieve permanent change. Eliminating processed foods at mealtimes and snacking in between also significantly reduces calorie intake and helps stabilise blood sugar…

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