Tue, Jan-02-24, 02:14
How to break your processed foods addiction
How to break your processed foods addiction using mind control
Leading surgeon Dr Andrew Jenkinson on the ways to finally transform your unhealthy habits
I was basking in the evening sun on a bench outside the main entrance of Ain Al Khaleej Hospital in the United Arab Emirates, with my translator Samer, taking a break from a long clinic.
The hospital had a curious space-age design, like a giant cylindrical UFO had just landed. A flower-bedded roundabout stood next to the entrance, welcoming 4x4s and luxury cars. In and out of the doors wandered Emirati men in white robes and their wives in black burqas.
Since early morning we had been visited by patient after patient – a long line of people who sensed they had lost control of their weight and were becoming sicker and sadder because of it.
For the last 20 years I’ve been performing bariatric surgery at University College London Hospital, and discussing diet with thousands of people struggling with obesity.
Now my weight-loss clinics were becoming popular here too. With the help of Samer, we’d explained the most effective ways to lose weight. Either by changing diet, injection treatment or surgery (like gastric bypass).
Samer took a sip of his strong Turkish coffee and said something astonishing to me. ‘Do you know, Dr Andrew, that I too used to suffer with obesity. I weighed 125kg [around 20 stone].’
He then proceeded to describe exactly how he turned his situation around. How, by understanding how his body, and just as importantly, how his mind worked, he had been able to devise a way to sustain his weight loss for the past 10 years.
The rise of processed foods
Processed foods – made up primarily of sugar, refined carbohydrates (such as wheat), vegetable oils and artificial flavourings and colourings – now dominate the nutritional options available to us. They account for 56 per cent of the total calories consumed per day by the average UK citizen.
It is the amount of processing that goes into making food that seems to matter to our health. There is a whole spectrum of processed food – and it is the fourth group that can be most damaging to us.
Samer now weighed 70kg (11 stone) and looked great – tanned, happy and healthy. He dressed in dapper suits that showed off his tall, slim frame. The basis of his success was very similar to the advice I give patients. But he had worked out how to reset his weight by himself, through years of trying. He achieved the same loss that would be expected after bariatric surgery... but he had never undergone the surgery.
Sensing my enthusiasm for his story, Samer charted his journey in more detail. In his early 20s, back when he lived in Jordan, he would work during the day, then play football in the evening, before coming home at dusk to fill himself up with tasty grilled meats and fish, rice and flatbread, yoghurt and tabbouleh, finishing off with coffee and fresh fruit. At sunrise he would wake up to strong Arabic tea and dates.
Aged 26, he relocated to the UAE, taking a job as a chief operating theatre technician in a hospital, and his whole lifestyle changed. The UAE is hot like a furnace in the summer, so people tend to stay in their air-conditioned apartments. For Samer there was no football, and no home-prepared food.
At first he loved the new treats available – fast foods that he got into the habit of ordering in the evening, sweet snacks that made him feel great and deflected his loneliness. And then the Netflix revolution came about and he spent evenings binge-watching shows while snacking. His weight went from 80kg, to 90kg, to 100kg, to 115kg, settling at 125kg.
Over the next 10 years, he tried the latest fad diets like Keto, starved himself, exercised. His weight yo-yoed by 10–12kg but the excess pounds always returned.
One morning he was listening to a local radio station and they were discussing the health benefits of drinking hot water with fresh lemon juice on waking, and not eating for a full hour. His interest was piqued, as a colleague had told him just that week that this had helped kick-start significant weight loss. He tried it too and some weight came off.
Inspired by this small victory, Samer decided to address his late-night snack habit, switching from sweets and crisps to sliced carrots, cucumbers and finely chopped raw cabbage with a sprinkle of salt. After two months he noticed further weight loss.
Eventually he was able to stop snacking entirely and decided to get early nights. Further weight loss followed, but then he hit a plateau at 105kg. His next move was the most difficult. He correctly reasoned that sugar was not good for his metabolism and avoided it completely. ‘Losing weight is like a war,’ he told me. ‘You will win it with strategy and being clever and understanding the body.
‘When I gave up sugar my friends laughed at me and tempted me with treats – I wanted to hit my head against a wall, but after 40 days the addiction was gone. It became easy.
‘If you stop sugar for 40 days you will never want it again. But it takes a strong mind.’
Samer’s weight hit 90kg but again plateaued. He realised that exercise was not shifting it. ‘Two hours on the treadmill is the same as one Coca-Cola. It’s not for weight loss but [it does] keep the muscles tight.’
One of the rules that he came to like was his theory that ‘if it tastes too good it will probably harm the body, but if it tastes natural it is good for you’. He became mindful of the tastes of foods and began to crave natural foods and dislike processed food. ‘If a fast-food burger was in front of me and it was the last thing on earth to eat, I would leave it.’
He gave up white rice and exchanged it for bulgur wheat which he found ‘lighter on the stomach’. He started to consume just two meals a day of fresh foods, and would not eat for the two hours before bed.
Though he was aware that vigorous exercise was not a long-term weight-loss solution, he understood the benefits of moderate exercise, which he said ‘wakes up the body and is good for the metabolism – even a walk’.
His weight came down to 80kg and stuck. Then, over a matter of weeks, without any further changes, he lost more weight as his body finally adapted, settling at 70kg. Over the past 10 years he has maintained at 70-75kg.
What intrigued me most was that the changes came about after a shift in his mentality – the way he thought about food and his health. After years of failed diets, Samer had come to understand that the most important battle to win was the one in the mind.
His weight-loss success was not based on an unusually iron will-power (although he had needed some to give up sugar); it was based on a change in his outlook and understanding of food. He did not feel as if he was giving anything up; he craved healthy food now, and was turned off by the taste and the feeling that unhealthy foods gave him. ‘You need to become addicted to healthy foods, just like you were addicted before to junk food.’
It seemed Samer had reached a new way of living; at first it had taken some self-discipline, but eventually it became easy for him.
Once you clearly understand how the toxic food environment surrounding you affects your body and your mind, it becomes much easier to lose weight and keep that weight off for good. And it’s easier still to sustain weight loss if you truly understand how your mind and body react to unhealthy foods: how these addictive foods can influence your metabolism, appetite, behaviour and habits.
Knowledge can promote a new outlook and understanding – a form of identity change that will cause a natural desire for a healthier eating pattern – and give you the tools to create that aversion to modern foods that my friend Samer described, so that no willpower is needed to change.
What ultra processed foods (UPFs) really do to you
In the last 40 years, obesity rates in the UK have increased from around five to 10 per cent of the population to the current level of between a quarter and a third of the population. But UPFs are linked to other health conditions too, as well as modern Western diseases… In other words, they make us die early.
Historically, food processing was for the purpose of making food easier to chew and digest, with the added bonus that sometimes these processes could make the food taste better. But in recent years the rationale for food processing changed: now it’s to prolong shelf life.
The additives often used to do this are not foods. They have individually been linked to numerous conditions that have become more prevalent in the developed world over the last 30-40 years, including neurological conditions such as ADD and Alzheimer’s. They can increase the risk of cancer (in animal tests) and contribute to inflammatory and autoimmune diseases including asthma and arthritis.
The link between individual food additives and these conditions is well known. Government food safety agencies justify not banning them from food because they are deemed acceptable in low doses. However, we are consuming multiple and diverse types of additives within each UPF item. The effect of mixing them is unknown because it is not tested.
Chemicals in UPFs unpacked
Food chemical additives can either be ‘antimicrobial’, limiting the growth of bacteria and fungi, or act as ‘antioxidants’, limiting the oxygenation of the food (in other words, stopping it from turning rancid). Common ‘chemical antimicrobial’ additives in modern foods, include: Calcium propionate (E282) is used in baked products and other processed foods. It works by releasing acid into the food, and the acidic environment means that bacteria cannot grow as easily. The side effects of too much include digestive problems such as bloating and diarrhoea. There is some concern that it can cause ADHD in children and it has been linked to autism in animal studies.
Sodium nitrates are used in fertilisers and to make explosives; they are also added to processed and cured meats, they lead to an increased risk of colon cancer.
Sulphur dioxide (E220) is used on dried fruits, so that the fruit retains its colourful appearance. This and other sulphites (E220– E228) are used as antifungal and antibacterial agents in many foods. It is accepted that the presence of sulphite preservatives on or inside food can cause autoimmune and other reactions, including asthma, rashes, itchy skin, abdominal cramps and diarrhoea. It has also been reported that sulphites adversely affect the sensitive balance of the microbes that live in our guts.
‘Chemical antioxidants’ include butylated hydroxyanisole (also known as E320) and butylated hydroxytoluene (E321) – petrochemicals that are not only food additives, but used in cosmetics and jet fuel. They have been recognised by the US National Institutes of Health as carcinogenic.
Four processed food groups
Group 1: minimally processed foods
Processing includes removal of inedible/unwanted parts. Does not add substance to the original food. Examples: Fresh, dry or frozen vegetables or fruit; grains and legumes; meat and fish; eggs and milk; nuts and seeds.
Group 2: processed ingredients
Substances derived from Group 1 foods or from nature by processes including pressing, refining, grinding, milling and drying. Examples: Plant oils (olive oil, coconut oil); animal fats (cream, butter, lard); maple syrup, sugar and honey; salt.
Group 3: processed foods
Processing of foods from Group 1 or 2 with the addition of oil, salt or sugar, by means of canning, pickling, smoking, curing or fermentation. Examples: Canned/pickled vegetables, meat, fish or fruit; artisanal bread; certain cheese and salted meats; wine, beer and cider.
Group 4: ultra-processed foods (UPFs)
Formulations made from a series of processes including extraction and chemical modification. Includes very little intact Group 1 foods. Often they look colourful and have pleasant combinations of flavours and ‘mouthfeel’.
Examples: Pre-prepared frozen meals; canned/instant soups; breakfast cereals and bars; packaged breads; chicken nuggets, fish fingers, burgers and hot dogs; mass-produced biscuits and cakes; margarines and spreads; instant noodles and powdered soups; sweetened yoghurts; sweetened juices and carbonated soft drinks; ice cream
These UPFs tend to be mass-produced in factories, marketed aggressively and packaged colourfully. They are addictive to humans and highly profitable for the food industry. They appear, over the short term, to be safe – and they are cheap, they make us feel good. But they can cause major dysfunction in how our bodies work.
Junk food hijacks the brain
Processed foods not only affect our bodies: they also hijack our brains’ reward pathways. Scientists have made great strides in understanding how reward pathways are etched permanently into our brains and how these pathways lead to habitual behaviours.
An example of this is our use of smartphones, designed to trigger a dopamine hit whenever a message or a funny video comes up. Hence many (probably most) people are constantly checking their phones.
Processed foods can trigger those same pleasure-centres, and can cause unhealthy habits to form. These habit loops are exploited by the food industry for its profit. The global processed food market generates revenues of $2.3 trillion per year, according to a 2021 report, and food companies not only invest in making foods that act like drugs, giving us a temporary high, but also in creating the trigger (or trap) in the first place, through adverts and clever marketing.
By understanding these traps for what they are, and our own habit loops, we will be much better prepared to cope with the constant bombardment of temptation.
Why habit loops form
Our brains are constantly on the lookout for a dopamine reward. The start of the process is the cue or trigger – something in the environment, or a particular place or time of day, that makes our brain start to crave a reward, as it works out what to do: cue craving response reward.
How to break the habit loop
When our environment changes (such as during the pandemic lockdowns), our habits change too. To go about habit change, you first need to be able to identify the habit loop that causes the habit. The awareness of the cue and the response to it is crucial.
If the habit is brushing your teeth in the morning, the cue to start might be the sight of the toothbrush next to the bathroom mirror. If the habit is eating fast food on the way home from work, the cue could come simply from the sign on the restaurant as you pass it by.
A habit will never be forgotten by our brains. If you stop performing a habit, the neural pathways may become overgrown and weaker as time goes by, but they will never disappear. So, the most successful way of overcoming a bad habit is to substitute a good one, rather than trying to cut it out altogether.
To do this, you need to make the bad habit less obvious and make it more difficult to gain the reward. For example, to stop that habit of eating fast food on the way home, you might alter your journey or assuage your hunger by eating a healthy snack half an hour before. Or if the bad habit is wasting time watching Netflix and your trigger is getting home from work and turning on the television, then you might try unplugging the TV and cable box so that it needs resetting. This increases the friction of the process.
There also has to be a reward in completing the action, or the habit loop will not be activated. Perhaps when you come home from work, you make it so that interesting books are handily placed for you to pick up instead of the remote control. Maybe you put out a selection of herbal teas to tempt you, the cup already waiting by the kettle. With this simple change, you have made a new and positive habit (drinking tea while reading) to replace the old one.
Shifting your mindset
Cutting out processed foods is admittedly easier said than done. Typically, when we want to change things, we tend to focus on the goal, the ultimate achievement. We might say we want to run a marathon or lose two stone (13kg). But this goal-first mentality postpones happiness to a future time. And we are trying to achieve the goal through willpower.
It’s much easier to achieve goals by a shift in mentality away from the particular achievement that you are aiming for and towards a change in your identity. Instead of a goal of wanting to run a marathon, you become a person who is likely to run a marathon. You become a runner. Once your outlook has shifted, it’s easy to go for your daily run because this is who you really are.
The more times that you do this, the more aligned your actions (or habits) and your identity become. Eventually, you take on the body and fitness of a runner to match your identity.
In the same way, instead of a goal of losing two stone, you concentrate on striving to be the person who could easily lose this weight: someone who only cooks their own food, doesn’t snack and avoids processed foods. You do not particularly crave bad food or have it in the house, because that’s not you.
Focusing on the goal (what you want to achieve) rather than your identity (who you are) means that the process (what you do) relies on motivation and willpower. By embracing the identity of the type of person who would achieve the outcome, the whole process becomes easier, more enjoyable and more sustainable.
To make it easier, answer the following:
1. What outcome do you want to achieve?
2. What type of person would be able to achieve that outcome easily?
Then list five small changes that this person would put in place. My hope is that by understanding the dangers of processed foods in causing weight gain and illness, you will notice that your food preferences are changing. Next it is a case of reframing your identity. You must feel the change from the inside first – when you act and think like a healthier person, your body catches up.
This change in mindset should be empowering. Habits play such an important role in how we go about our daily lives – with repetition, those good habits will become an integral part of who we are. As it did for Samer, it will become something we perform automatically without the need for willpower.
[i]Abridged extract from How to Eat (and Still Lose Weight): A Science-Backed Guide to Nutrition and Health, by Dr Andrew Jenkinson (Penguin Life); out 18 January[/l]
How to Eat (And Still Lose Weight): A Science-backed Guide to Nutrition and Health
Most diets fail because they rely on willpower alone. In this book surgeon and expert on metabolism Dr Andrew Jenkinson shows you how to unlock the secret to lasting weight loss through a better understanding of your brain, body and environment, allowing you to eat well and lose weight, forever.
Using a combination of cutting-edge metabolic science, together with strategies like aversion, habit creation and mental reprogramming, expert in the science of appetite Dr Andrew Jenkinson will show you how your body and brain work when it comes to what you eat, and how to arm yourself against the malicious presence of food marketing, junk food and the harmful effects of the Western diet.
You will learn:
· Why exercise is of secondary importance to energy balance
· How we can learn to 'crave surf', being more mindful of hunger cravings when they arise
· How junk foods affect our brains, influencing our behaviour and creating bad habits
· How to maintain a good metabolic rate when losing weight
· The science behind popular weight loss techniques and why they work, including hot water and lemon; raw foods; time restricted eating; keto diets and high intensity training
Filled with science-backed tips and techniques, this book will help you implement lasting changes, eat well and feel good.