Obesity: It’s more than willpower

Willpower, and individual responsibility are often blamed for our increasing weight as a population. However, this isn’t entirely accurate. Our environment plays a significant role in this issue, as we will discuss below. In today’s fast-paced world, convenience often takes precedence over quality, especially regarding our diets. This shift has led to a significant increase in the consumption of ultra-processed foods, which are wreaking havoc on our health and contributing to the global obesity epidemic. We aim to explain what ultra-processed foods are, how to identify them, where they are commonly found, and what steps you can take to minimize their impact on your health.

What Are Ultra-Processed Foods?

Ultra-processed foods (UPFs) are formulations of ingredients primarily intended for industrial use, resulting from a series of complex physical and chemical processes. Designed to be convenient, appealing, and affordable, they pose a significant cost to our health. These foods typically contain ingredients not found in a typical kitchen, such as preservatives, artificial flavors, colorings, and emulsifiers.

Unlike merely processed foods, UPFs are heavily manipulated to the point where their nutritional value is significantly compromised. Engineered to be hyper-palatable, they are difficult to resist and easy to overconsume. Examples include sugary drinks, packaged snacks, instant noodles, and ready-to-eat meals.

How to Spot Ultra-Processed Foods

Recognizing ultra-processed foods can be challenging, but it’s crucial for maintaining a healthy diet. Here are some tips to help you identify them:

  • Check the ingredients list on the food label. UPFs often have lengthy ingredient lists with items that are hard to pronounce or unfamiliar. If a product contains more than five ingredients, it’s likely ultra-processed.
  • Look for artificial additives such as preservatives, sweeteners, colorings, and flavor enhancers. Common ones include monosodium glutamate (MSG), high fructose corn syrup, and various E-numbers.
  • Pay attention to the packaging. Ultra-processed foods are usually heavily marketed and come in attractive packaging. They often carry health claims like “low-fat” or “sugar-free,” which can be misleading.
  • Consider the shelf life. Products with a long shelf life that don’t require refrigeration are often ultra-processed. This longevity is usually due to the addition of preservatives and other chemicals.

Where to Find Ultra-Processed Foods

UPFs are ubiquitous and can be found almost everywhere, making it challenging to avoid them entirely. Here are some common places where they lurk:

  • Supermarkets: The majority of products found in the middle aisles of supermarkets are ultra-processed. This includes cereals, snacks, frozen meals, and beverages.
  • Fast food outlets: These are major suppliers of ultra-processed foods. From burgers and fries to soft drinks and desserts, these items are designed for quick consumption and are loaded with unhealthy ingredients.
  • Convenience stores: These stock an array of ultra-processed foods because they are portable and have a long shelf life. Think of crisps, confectionery, and canned drinks.
  • School and workplace cafeterias: Unfortunately, even places that should promote healthy eating can be sources of ultra-processed foods. Pre-packaged sandwiches, sugary snacks, and soft drinks are commonly available.

The Impact of Ultra-Processed Foods on Obesity

The rise in obesity rates strongly correlates with the increased consumption of ultra-processed foods. Here’s how UPFs contribute to this issue:

  • UPFs are often calorie-dense and nutrient-poor. They provide a lot of energy in the form of sugars and fats but lack essential nutrients, leading to overconsumption without feeling satisfied.
  • These foods are designed to be irresistibly tasty, encouraging overeating. The combination of sugar, fat, and salt stimulates the brain’s reward system, making it difficult to stop at just one serving.
  • Many UPFs have a high glycemic index, causing rapid spikes in blood sugar levels. This can lead to insulin resistance over time, a precursor to obesity and type 2 diabetes.
  • Due to their low fiber content and high energy density, UPFs do not promote a feeling of fullness, leading to increased calorie intake.

What You Can Do About It

Reducing the consumption of ultra-processed foods is crucial for maintaining a healthy weight and overall well-being. Here are some practical steps you can take:

  • Cook at Home: Take control by preparing meals from scratch. Focus on whole, unprocessed foods like vegetables, fruits, lean proteins, and whole grains.
  • Read Labels: Be a savvy shopper. Check ingredient lists and nutritional information. Choose products with minimal ingredients and no artificial additives.
  • Plan Your Meals: Avoid the temptation of ultra-processed convenience foods by planning meals ahead of time. Prepare healthy snacks and meals in advance for when you’re on the go, especially when figuring out what to eat around training.
  • Educate Yourself: Stay informed about the dangers of ultra-processed foods and the benefits of whole foods. Knowledge empowers healthier choices.
  • Shop Smart: Spend more time in the fresh produce section of your supermarket. Avoid the middle aisles where ultra-processed foods are typically found. Farmers’ markets are also great places to find fresh, local, and unprocessed foods.
  • Mindful Eating: Pay attention to what you eat and how it affects you. Eating slowly and mindfully helps recognize fullness and prevents overeating.
  • Support Policy Changes: Advocate for policies promoting healthy eating, such as improved food labeling, restrictions on junk food advertising, and enhanced nutritional standards in schools and workplaces.


The prevalence of ultra-processed foods in our diets significantly contributes to the obesity epidemic. Understanding what these foods are, how to identify them, and actively reducing their consumption are crucial steps toward protecting our health and fostering a healthier lifestyle. Remember, prioritizing whole, minimally processed foods and mindful eating is key. Obesity isn’t solely a result of lacking willpower but is heavily influenced by our environment. By being mindful of ultra-processed foods, we can tip the odds in our favor for better health.