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Ep. 52 – Ultra Processed Foods

A recently published book suggests that we are unhealthy because of ultra-processed foods (UPF). To prove his point, the author ate a high UPF diet for 4 weeks. What where the results? What happened to Dr. Chet Zelsasko when he did the same thing? Find out on this edition of Straight Talk on Health.

Welcome to Straight Talk on Health. I’m your host Dr. Chet Zelasko. Straight Talk on Health is recorded in conjunction with WGVU in Grand Rapids MI. I examine the world of health. Whether it’s research that makes the news, another miracle diet, or a new food fad, I look at the science behind them, and let you know whether it’s real or not. You can check out other things that I do on my website Drchet.com and sign up for my free emails.

Ultra-processed food (UPF) has been in the news for the last at least six months. I know I’ve done at least one Straight Talk on Health with that being the primary topic this season. Defining what it is. Explaining why nutritionists and scientists believe that it is bad for our health. I happened to find a book that in some ways, made me extraordinarily angry, and at the end of the day, set me up for a nice challenge. I'll get to that in a little bit. 

The title of the book is Ultra-Processed People: The Science Behind Food That Isn't Food. The author is Chris van Tulleken and it was published this year in 2023. The first part of the book goes through an explanation of what ultra-processed food is, how it's developed over the years, what's actually in ultra-processed food. Then it turns to ages of eating and why being overweight and unhealthy is not our fault. So it isn't about the sugar or exercise or willpower; it's all about how UPF works in our brain. Then there's a whole litany of things about how it affects our body and on and on and on.

What caught my attention was that he, in conjunction with a university, decided to find out what would happen if he ate a diet of 80% ultra-processed food and 20% of what he never really talks about. Given his passion for ultra-processed food, I don't know what vegetables or fruits or whole grains he might have been able to slip in. They went through a period of adjustment for 30 days and took a whole lot of physiological and biochemical markers. Not only just simple body weight and percent body fat but also every kind of test that you can think of from cholesterol to blood pressure to many other factors that are not typically tested for but appear to have an impact on hunger.

 Then for the next 28 days, he ate ultra-processed food for 80% of his caloric input along with 20% of whatever else is not ultra-processed food. His definition of UPF was a little bit off in my opinion. To him, if there was one ingredient that you couldn't find in a well-stocked pantry, then that was considered an ultra-processed food. Foods with sodium would be found in the typical pantry. But things like artificial binders to keep food a certain shape, artificial flavors, and artificial colors would all be cast under the category of ultra-processed food.

 What happened to him after 28 days? You would have thought that he was near death door. He had gained weight. He was constantly constipated. He had developed anal fissures, most likely due to the chronic constipation, and other digestive issues. He could not sleep well. Not exercising was a foregone conclusion because he had no energy to do so. And he became obsessed with getting enough of the ultra-processed food on a daily basis.

 There is one more thing that you need to know. He ate ultra-processed foods ad Lib. Well, what does that mean? Ad libitum is a term used in nutrition research to mean that an animal including mice, chimpanzees, and humans that are in nutrition trials, are allowed to eat as much as they want. And the way he described what he ate one could understand why he would gain weight.

 Let me give you an example. He described eating lasagna and other frozen prepared meals. He didn't just eat the entire lasagna; he also then licked the serving dish that it came in. What he never really talked about in the book was exactly how many calories he was eating. I find that to be a little bit disingenuous. Everything UPF was to blame.

 His salvation was to completely give up all ultra-processed food. He feels better. He has more energy. And so does his brother who had the same disordered eating issue that he had. It's a very nice story. I'm not suggesting that ultra-processed food is good for anyone in the least. Manufacturers intentionally add ingredients that are gonna make you want more of that food. But I'm also going to say that based on his N of 1, we don't know whether it's the ultra-processed food or whether he just ate too much.

 I decided I would take on the challenge myself. I was going to eat as close to 80% ultra-processed food as I could using his definition with the rest of the 20% unprocessed or normally processed. There's just one difference. One of my goals for 2023 was to get my weight to a normal BMI. The reason is simple: people who attain and maintain a normal body weight live longer, have less health issues, and appear to get around a lot better than people that are carrying even an extra 30 to 45 pounds. I used the NIH: National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases Body Weight Planner to estimate the calories I needed to reduce my weight 30 pounds by 12/31/23. It's the best caloric estimator for weight loss because it allows to select specific activity levels plus add in the additional exercise you’re willing to do. My caloric goal to lose the weight I wanted to lose over 5 months was 1800 calories per day. Technically it was 1782 but I rounded up.

 I began by buying cereal—Frosted Flakes and Fruit Loops. I also use almond milk because if anything is UP, “milk” from soy, almond, or oats is. I bought plain white bread, similar to that childhood favorite “Wonder Bread.” I bought frozen meals with as many ingredients I could find. I drank calorie free energy drinks and soda because, while they don’t have calories, they are full of artificial sweeteners which fall into that UPF category. I ate sausage, even eating liverwurst. I haven’t had that in 40 years but it still tasted great on white bread with mustard. So did baloney.


The only thing I did differently was I recorded every calorie, at least rounded to the nearest 5 calories. It isn’t difficult to control the salty-crunchy-umami flavors I favor in chips and the like. Just buy individual servings bags with 100-140 calories per bag. What’s interesting was my downfall was dry roasted peanuts. I didn’t have any because they only contained salt and were not a UPF.

 What are the results? In the first 28 days, I lost 4 pounds. That’s a little faster than the schedule. Now, at 70 days, I’m down 14 pounds—technically 13.8 pounds. I’ve eliminated some of the UPF because I had lost the taste for them decades ago and a month wasn’t enough to make myself a sugar junky again. However, I have gotten an affinity for tomato sandwiches. Plain white bread. Roma tomatoes. Salt and pepper. Hellman’s Mayonnaise. Even better with fresh basil from my garden. Did I have any issues? The lack of fiber slowed down elimination but no energy or other issues I noticed. I’m on course to reach my goal, UPF or not.

 Is UPF bad for you? Is UPF good for you? I think the answer lies somewhere in-between. I encourage you to read Dr. Telleken’s book because, though it’s really more about an eating disorder than anything else, it is well researched with references you can check for yourself. As for me, it confirms what I’ve always said: a calorie is a calorie is a calorie. Control your intake and no food need be avoided. Thank you for listening but that’s it for this show. Until next time, this is Dr. Chet Zelasko saying health is a choice. Choose wisely today and every day.

Reference: Ultra-Processed People: The Science Behind Food That Isn't Food, 2023. Chris van


Dr. Chet Zelasko is a scientist, speaker, and author. Dr. Chet has a Ph.D. and MA in Exercise Physiology and Health Education from Michigan State University and a BS in Physical Education from Canisius College. He’s certified by the American College of Sports Medicine as a Health and Fitness Specialist, belongs to the American Society of Nutrition, and has conducted research and been published in peer-reviewed journals. You can find him online at drchet.com.
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