Scientist Lost Weight Effortlessly By Cutting Out Ultra-Processed Foods

Professor Barry Smith used to work with companies that produced ultra-processed foods, but stopped when he became more aware of the health risks.
Getty Images/Barry Smith

  • Highly processed foods dominate the Western diet and have been linked to serious health problems.
  • Food companies are turning to sensory scientists to make UPFs irresistible.
  • Professor Barry Smith, an expert on the senses, stopped using UPFs and lost weight without any effort.

A professor of the senses who helped multinational food companies create ultra-processed foods lost weight effortlessly after cutting these foods out of his diet when he discovered how harmful they were to his health.

Professor Barry Smith, director of the University of London’s Institute of Philosophy, told Business Insider he had previously worked with Kellogg’s, Coca-Cola and Ferrero and that UPFs made up around 30% to 40% of his diet.

UPFs, which are made with ingredients and processes not found in a regular kitchen, are a staple of the Western diet. A 2024 non-peer-reviewed research paper from Northeastern University’s Network Science Institute found that they make up 73% of the U.S. food supply.

According to Smith, these super-tasty foods contain the perfect ratio of fat to carbs, making them nearly impossible to stop eating.

“These are foods that are so wanted by our system that they slow down our satiety mechanisms,” he said. Research published last year in Nature Food found that the more hyper-palatable foods were in a meal, the more calories participants ate overall.

Smith started reducing UPFs around 2020 after Dr. Chris Van Tulleken, the author of the bestselling “Ultra Processed People,” which highlights the dangers of industrial food processing, asked him to join his podcast.

“They wanted to know what sensory tricks and gimmicks go into food production and presentation that make us eat, crave and desire these foods,” Smith said.

It made him more aware of the health issues — a study published in February in The BMJ linked UPFs to a higher risk of 32 health conditions, including type 2 diabetes, depression and cardiovascular disease — and made him think about his work.

“I realized that, without knowing it, I may have been supporting and encouraging these actions of the food industry. I started thinking, no, I can’t do that in good conscience,” he said.

According to Smith, food companies hire sensory scientists and chemists to make their UPFs irresistible, but they typically don’t eat the products they help make.

“They know what the design, the make-up, the industrial processing entails. So they don’t necessarily want to eat them themselves,” he said.

Smith no longer works with UPF companies (though he says he’s never given advice on how to make food people can’t leave behind).

He shared three things that helped him change his diet.

Take a Break from UPFs First (And You May Never Go Back)

The more Smith learned about the health risks of UPFs, the less he wanted to eat them, so he decided to eliminate them altogether.

He realized that he didn’t like them because they had a physiological effect on him, and over time he actually began to hate them.

“They seem too intense, too overpowering in flavor, too flashy in a sense,” he said.

And he found that he felt better. “I purposely cut out ultra-processed foods because of the bad things they could do to my health. And then I found that the effects were so desirable,” he said.

He felt more energetic, fuller for longer, and was able to stop eating when he was full. He also lost weight without trying.

He thinks this is because he was previously addicted to UPFs, rather than actually enjoying them. By stopping for a while, he was able to see them for what they were.

“When you take away that craving, you find that you go back to a very natural intake regulation where you don’t overeat,” Smith said. “It’s not that these are foods that we necessarily like more than anything else, but they are foods that we want and can’t seem to stay away from.”

While it worked for Smith, going cold turkey isn’t for everyone. As registered dietitian Linia Patel previously told BI about reducing UPFs, creating a new habit involves changing your behavior. So it’s helpful to figure out what works for you.

As we use less UPFs, we may wonder if we actually like them or if we’re just addicted to them.
Aleksandr Zubkov/Getty Images

Check food labels

Smith said checking the nutrition labels on foods helped him choose minimally processed products.

He said he’s discovered that even some products you might expect to be “perfectly OK,” like a can of kidney beans from the supermarket, can contain gelling agents or stabilizers. He gets around this by opting for organic versions.

Unfortunately, this emphasizes that a healthy diet can depend on one’s eating environment and socioeconomic status.

Find really tasty alternatives

As a professor of the senses, Smith is interested in the multisensory experience of eating. “How things look, how they smell, how they feel on your fingers, even the sound of the food when you break something or shake something. All of those things are part of the experience of tasting and eating,” he said.

It’s crucial to keep this in mind when moving away from UPFs that are specifically formulated to be comfortable, he said.

“You’re not going to convince people to switch from ultra-processed foods by telling them it’s bad for them. It has to be the taste first,” he said.

Vegetables, while nutritious, can also be pretty boring, he said. But there are lots of ways to make them interesting, including roasting, pickling and fermenting them.

“You have to make them really tasty so that people realize, ‘I can make something reasonably cheap and reasonably good that I actually enjoy,’” he said.

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