A British physician who used his body as a test subject claims that one month on a junk food diet has shaved 10 years off his life.
For four grueling weeks, Chris van Tulleken, an infectious diseases doctor for the University College London Hospital system, ate a strict diet of frozen pizza, fried chicken, fish sticks, cereals and other ready-made meals which pack a long list of chemical ingredients.
Van Tulleken chronicled the effects of the diet in a new BBC show, “What Are We Feeding Our Kids?” It exposed the “catastrophic” toll of what he calls “Ultra Processed Foods,” shortened in the show to UPF.
“My libido, piles, heartburn … everything got worse. I was anxious, depressed — and it was all self-perpetuating,” van Tulleken, a longtime BBC health broadcaster, told the Telegraph.
The otherwise healthy 42-year-old was constantly nagged by hunger pangs, to the extent that he had difficulty achieving a good night’s sleep due to his urge to eat more.
“Things like monosodium glutamate (MSG) send a signal to your brain telling you this is nutritious,” said van Tulleken, whose show airs this week in the UK. “But when you digest it there is nothing [nutritious] there — so you keep eating.”
The toll this diet took on his mental health was equally alarming, said van Tulleken. An MRI proved that his poor diet had the effect of drugs or alcohol to an addict, a finding supported by previous studies. Even months later, since the experiment ended, the neurological changes have lingered.
Van Tulleken also slammed infant and children’s foods as “confection,” warning parents to pay attention to what they’re feeding their kids.
“Most children in this country begin their lives on ultra-processed food,” he said, calling out typical kid-favorites such as white bread, sugary cereals and bacon. “What is it doing to them? The astounding thing is we have no idea.”
Van Tulleken has since eliminated UPF from his diet entirely, and takes greater care with his two kids.
“Everything I was feeding [eldest child] Lyra was ultra-processed and I didn’t realize it,” he said. Van Tulleken said he’ll take a different approach with his second child, Sasha.
Van Tulleken admitted to a troubled relationship with junk food in the past, a struggle he and twin brother, fellow health correspondent Dr. Alexander van Tulleken, shared as adolescents.
“My weakness is food. I eat almost to the point of self-harm,” he said.
He’s also still working off the weight gained during his monthlong experiment. “Many people might think that I look fairly thin, but I am overweight and I feel [self-]conscious,” he said. “There are some clothes that I don’t wear because I want to hide my belly.”
These days he’s sworn off most deli sandwiches, cereals and restaurant takeout. Likening himself to an “ex-smoker,” he said that junk food now “holds no appeal. I would no more voluntarily go and buy a UPF hamburger than I would a packet of cigarettes.”
Recent studies have shown that highly processed foods can be linked to accelerated aging and early death. It’s no coincidence that more than 73% of US adults are considered overweight or obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control, when research also shows that 60% of the American diet consists of processed foods.
Van Tulleken hopes to see more explicit food labeling to warn consumers of the dangers of junk food — similar to those seen on cigarettes and other addictive or otherwise harmful substances.
“I just want there to be a warning on the packet saying this food is associated with increases in obesity, cancer and death,” he said. “And then you can go ahead and enjoy it.”