A few years back there were scarcely any junk food outlets in the country, yet these days every mall and shopping precinct is awash with fried chicken and burger outlets. Botswana may have lagged behind the US and UK in their appetite for fast food products but the population is fast catching up. Some of the results were predictable. There’s a growing issue of obesity in children, over-indulged by well-meaning but misguided parents, and bus stops, car parks and streets are awash with soiled polystyrene containers, thus simultaneously contributing to the country’s litter mountain and the planet’s plastic pandemic, the former also proving lethal to grazing cattle and wildlife. And it’s all down to the Colonel, Ronald McDonald and the advertising industry. Many European countries have imposed restrictions on the advertising of such unhealthy products before what’s known as the 9pm ‘watershed’, when children are supposed to be tucked up in bed but such restrictions mean nothing when kids access their viewing on social media and streaming platforms which operate 24-7, and such sites are awash with pop-up ads to entice young hearts and minds.

The menu items carried in these fast-food outlets are known as Ultra Processed Foods, or UPFs. As a nation, the Japanese are generally thought to eat fairly healthily, though their main cities are also now not immune to the inevitable march of the fries, nuggets and burger chain armies. Unsurprisingly, it was Japanese nutritionists who first classified food in terms of their nutritional vale, under the NOVA system, which defines our diet in terms of how little or how much processing it has undergone before it reached our stomachs.

However, it is only very recently that UPFs have been properly put under the microscope as regards the precise implication of a diet heavy in such foods has on the human body, and with the results now in, the conclusion is irrefutable: Not only are they lacking in proper nutrition, but they are addictive and fattening, and that’s not the worse. Since they contain so many chemicals and other additives, in addition to being over-processed to the extent of lacking any fibrous content, they cause harmful changes in our bodies as the brain struggles to recognise what is being consumed and the gut fails in its duty to process the unknown substances in the proper manner.

Last year, in a book entitled Ultra-Processed People: Why Do We All Eat Stuff That Isn’t Food … and Why Can’t We Stop? by Dr. Chris van Tulleken, the doctor laid out his personal research into the effects of UPFs, detailing the results of his month-long dietary experiment to see what would be the effects of consisting almost entirely of Ultra-Processed Foods. Although he tried to shield his family from the experiment, this proved impossible. Consider his opening paragraph,

Normally, I wouldn’t have Coco Pops for breakfast. But they seemed a good choice when I embarked on a month-long scientific experiment…. As I opened the cereal packet, my three-year-old daughter Lyra said: ‘Is it for me?’ No, I told her — she was having porridge.
‘I want the Mickey Mouse cereal!’ Lyra cried, pointing at Coco Monkey.

The packet had clearly been designed with a three-year-old in mind. Lyra had never had Coco Pops before, but Kellogg’s already had her hooked. Again, I told her no, so she collapsed on the floor crying and screaming with rage. Then, while I was seeing to her porridge, she crawled out from under the table, filled her bowl and started to eat great fistfuls of dry Coco Pops, wide-eyed and ecstatic.

Defeated, I poured some milk into her bowl, then read out the UPF ingredients on the packet: glucose syrup, cocoa mass and flavourings. The cereal also contained 20 per cent more salt per gram, I noted, than a typical microwave lasagne.

As I watched Lyra continue eating, it struck me she wasn’t fully in control. The pack said that a recommended serving for an adult is 30g (roughly a handful). But 30g in, she’d hardly taken a breath. When I ¬suggested one bowl was enough, the idea was instantly dismissed. It felt like ¬advising a smoker to stick to one cigarette…Her eating wasn’t just mindless: it was trancelike. She carried on until her belly was drum taut. By the time she stopped, she’d consumed two adult servings: most of her day’s-worth of calories.

Later he explained his own uncontrolled descent into over-eating.

In ultra-processing, however, barely any natural structures survive. The result is we’re still hungry and carry on consuming calories we don’t need. That certainly applied to me as I tried to stick to an 80 per cent UPF diet. By the fourth week, it had started to have very noticeable physical effects, forcing me to loosen my belt by two notches. I was now consuming a lot more salt, which meant ¬drinking more water and having to get up in the night to pee a lot. Unable to sleep, I’d go to the kitchen and have a snack, more out of boredom than anything else. I’d also become very ¬constipated because ultra-processed food is low in fibre and water and high in salt. ¬Constipation led to piles — common in people who eat a lot of UPF.

The discomfort led to even worse sleep, which reduced my work productivity and ramped up anxiety — a vortex of ¬physical and mental effects that started to impact on every aspect of our family life. In just a few weeks, I felt like I’d aged ten years. I was aching, exhausted, miserable and angry. Ironically, eating more UPF food often felt like the solution rather than the problem.

At the end of the fourth week, I went to University College London Hospital — where I work as a doctor — to repeat a series of scans and measurements done before I started the diet. The results were spectacular. I’d gained 6 kg). Had this rate continued for a year, I would have nearly doubled my body weight. Additionally, my appetite ¬hormones were totally deranged. The hormone that signals ¬fullness barely responded to a large meal, while the hunger hormone was sky-high just moments after eating.
There was a fivefold increase in leptin, the hormone that comes from fat, while my levels of C-reactive protein, a marker that indicates inflammation, had doubled.

But the most terrifying result was an MRI scan. It revealed that the connectivity between several regions in my brain had increased — especially the areas involved in the hormonal control of how much I eat, plus those involved in my desire for food and the reward I get from -consuming it. The professor interpreting my scan was categorical: ‘You don’t see these big changes unless you do something significant to the physiology of the brain. It’s not random.’

Had I carried on eating vast quantities of UPF, the new pathways in my brain would almost certainly have become permanent. And messing about with the reward pathways is never a good idea.Why? Because that’s what all addictive drugs do. And the physical changes were not the only ill effects of such a diet. A recent study found that participants who were in the top fifth of consumers of UPFs – eating nine or more servings per day— had a 50% higher risk of developing depression than those in the bottom fifth of consumers, eating four or fewer servings per day. The researchers also identified a link between artificial sweeteners and depression: Participants in the top fifth of consumers had a 26% higher risk of developing depression than those in the bottom fifth.

Study author Chan stated in a September 20 article in Forbes that people “may wish to limit their intake of ultra-processed foods wherever possible”—particularly people who already live with depression or other mental health conditions. He noted that the study controlled for confounding factors such as exercise and smoking status. In addition, none of the study’s participants had depression at the outset, which was the study’s strength. In a September 20 article, Chan told The Guardian. “[We minimized] the likelihood that our findings are simply due to individuals with depression being more likely to choose ultra processed foods.”

As you know, this is a subject close to my heart and for your own heart’s sake, as well as better mental health, sleep patterns and general wellbeing, for Pete’s sake, Junk the junk food now. And if you love your kids, make their treat a bar of chocolate and a piece of fruit, and stay the hell away from Ronald and the Colonel – they’re pushers!