for those who love the outdoors

24 January, 2024


Why a New Year’s resolution to avoid Ultra-Processed Foods is ultra difficult

Not all ultra-processed foods are the same so does a New Year's diet to avoid them make sense? And what does it mean for runners?


You know it must be January because the number of runners outside have multiplied, the gyms are full to their sweaty breaking points and knabbing a space in any yoga class is harder than landing tickets to Glastonbury. Although that’s not to say that there is anything wrong with starting the year with some good intentions to get fit and healthy. But it can be hard to know how to do it while navigating yourself through the wealth of wellness-related information we are fed by social media. 

Especially because the free advice we are given doesn’t often take into account the realities of our daily lives. And if a new fitness regime or resolution to eat better isn’t easy to adapt to, it’s difficult to stay motivated and stick to it long term. Nonetheless, every year we hear that our eternal ‘wellness’ and so, happiness, is promised by religiously following another new workout or fad diet.

Some health trends will defy the odds and stick around for years, such as HIIT workouts, Veganuary and worshipping all things protein. Others, though, have turned out to have a more limited shelf life and only exist in most people’s minds as a bit of a letdown. Step forward, the step aerobics craze, ‘clean’ eating and spiralizing food. 

This January the biggest health trend featured by the media is focused entirely on what you shouldn’t be putting on your plate. It’s the drive to begin the New Year by eliminating all ultra-processed foods (UPFs) and drinks from your diet. It’s too soon to predict whether this trend will truly last the distance, although early indications show that its followers are rapidly multiplying. 

But will it threaten the longstanding reign of the most popular health trend of all, held by the highly successful yet understated parkrun? Or is this new diet trend doomed to fail? Trying to eliminate all ultra-processed foods and drinks from your diet is harder than you may think. Especially once you realise what foods and drinks actually count as being ultra-processed.


Most people believe that they have a pretty good idea of what ultra-processed foods and drinks are because they’ve been a feature in our high streets and supermarket shelves for quite some time. Following the trend to eliminate them from your diet would then seem to be a straightforward ask. Except that despite this familiarity with them, there is no universally agreed definition of what makes a food or drink ultra-processed. 

Though the most widely accepted classification system used to define UPFs globally by governments and international organisations in nutrition and public health research is known as the NOVA system. In a nutshell, NOVA categorises all foods and drinks into 4 groups according to the extent and purpose of processing rather than by their nutrients. Now, this distinction is pretty important. The groups are: 1. Unprocessed (natural) and minimally processed foods, 2. Processed culinary ingredients, 3. Processed foods and 4. Ultra-processed foods.

The first two groups are pretty self-explanatory but you may be surprised to know which foods fall into the last two. Processed foods are those that are preserved by canning, bottling, salting, smoking, drying, pickling or curing. 

This group also includes some types of freshly baked bread and fresh cheeses with added salt. It is worth noting that, as they are modified versions of unprocessed foods, most processed foods contain only two or three ingredients. For example, processed foods include a tin of tuna, a bottle of passata and a can of sweetcorn. Now the main difference and what really puts the ‘ultra’ into ultra-processed foods is that they do a lot more to them.

UPFs and drinks undergo far more industrial techniques and processing on a mass scale and lower the manufacturing costs by using cheaper ingredients while increasing their shelf-life, palatability and convenience. As you would expect, UPFs include products that everyone knows we should be having far less of to stay healthy, such as carbonated drinks and energy drinks, snack foods, confectionary, fast foods and ready-to-heat and ready-to-cook meals. 

However, I am willing to bet that most people don’t realise that baby formulas and baby foods, fruit yoghurts, margarines and spreads, breakfast cereals, alternative plant drinks and plant products and mass produced breads are all ultra-processed, as are many other common foods and drinks you may find in your kitchen. So eliminating all UPFs and drinks doesn’t just mean having to forgo takeaways and giving certain supermarket aisles a wide berth.


Avoiding all UPFs also has some pretty big implications for runners because many of us rely on ultra-processed gels and sports drinks as energy. And we do it not only because of the convenience of being able to grab it as we head out the door. 

Runners ultimately use them because they work. Of course there are those who are still able to run a marathon or ultra using only unprocessed ‘natural’ foods such as dates and other dried fruits. But what about those who can only stomach gummy bears and flat Coke? Our bodies literally run on sugar and need it to fuel endurance sports. So does this mean that following the anti-UPF diet is incompatible with exercising at a high level?

Perhaps the details about how to avoid all of these pesky UPFs and live a normal life while staying fit is hidden in the fine print of how to follow the trend. Because I haven’t seen anything on social media about having to go back to baking lockdown sourdough loaves and to stop eating Quorn. 

Who has the time to buy fresh artisan bread everyday let alone bake it? Not to mention that you can pick up a pretty decent sliced granary at a fraction of the price at most supermarkets. But more importantly, if these foods and drinks are also classified as being ultra-processed, does it mean that they are also bad for our health? Well not exactly because, if you remember, NOVA doesn’t classify ultras based on their nutrients.

Several robust studies have shown that some ultra-processed foods are linked to an increase in cancer, diabetes and heart disease. The evidence suggests that the more ultra-processed foods you eat, the greater your chances of developing ill health. In particular, the regular consumption of meat products such as sausages or sugary drinks increases your risk of developing these diseases. 

We also know that your risk of becoming overweight and obese is linked to diets that are high in UPFs. Of course, being overweight and living with obesity also comes with more risks of ill health. However, there are other studies that show that not all ultra-processed foods are bad for our health. For example, those containing added fibre may actually reduce the risk of some cancers. So does it still make sense to follow a trend to avoid all UPFs?

UP Fs 3

Unquestionably, some ultra-processed foods and drinks are very unhealthy and it makes sense to not consume them on a regular basis. However, if your aim is to start the New Year by eating a far healthier diet, then there is a simpler way to do it that will outlast any trend. Rather than fixating on removing all ultra-processed foods and drinks from your diet, switch your focus onto reducing the foods and drinks that are energy dense and high in saturated fat, salt and sugar (HFSS foods). 

Clearly, HFSS foods also include all of the unhealthy UPFs you should be steering clear of. In other words, if you resolve to replace HFSS foods and drinks with more nutritious choices, you will naturally start eating a healthier diet. Particularly because this will also work to reduce the other unhealthy HFSS foods and drinks in your diet which may be less processed than the ultras but are just as unhealthy. For example, honey, fruit juices, processed meat, bacon, palm oil and coconut fat are not ultra-processed but you shouldn’t consume them regularly if you want to maintain good health.

However, when it comes to gels, bars and sports drinks which qualify doubly as being UPF and HFSS it’s important to make an exception for those doing an endurance sport such as running. As long as you are consuming them only when needed while exercising and not in excess it is entirely consistent with also following a healthy diet. Which means that if they help you do sport there is no need to suddenly avoid them. Just don’t reach for them out of habit or think of them as really handy snacks. Like all natural dried fruit, sports products and drinks are very energy-dense and if taken between meals they can also cause dental decay.

So to sum up, rather than following an anti-UPFs trend this January, which may or may not stick, why not finally try to get the healthy eating basics right for good. Aim to reduce your intake of HFSS foods and drinks by basing your meals on healthy complex carbohydrates such as wholewheat pasta, brown rice and other grains, potatoes or bread choosing wholegrain sources and those with added fibre where you can. 

Include at least 5 portions of fruit and vegetables every day and vary the ones you eat. Ideally you should be filling up half of your plate with these at mealtimes. Add 2-3 protein sources such as beans, pulses, tofu, fish, eggs, dairy, poultry and other protein including 2 portions of fish every week, 1 of which should be oily. Include sources of calcium or fortified dairy alternatives to keep your bones and teeth strong.

It’s also important to consider the variety of foods that you eat overall, so you avoid getting stuck into a routine of eating exactly the same meals every day. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you can’t have your usual go-to lunch at your workplace if it’s easy and healthy. But for example, if it’s a sandwich then try to change up the fillings or bread for other healthy choices or go halves and add in a bowl of soup. Primarily, increasing the variety in your diet will ensure that you get a wider range of vitamins and minerals and this will help keep you healthy.

Healthy eating 1

To keep eating healthily beyond January, try to see any changes you make to your diet as a permanent new way of eating rather than as a temporary fix. Do it by making realistic small changes rather than a radical shift. For example, cooking more from scratch will help to reduce your intake of HFSS foods. But if you are time-poor, it may not be practical to do every day. 

You may find it easier to batch cook on weekends and freeze the leftovers to reheat and eat during the week. Remember that cooking from scratch doesn’t mean avoiding using all processed foods because many of them are perfectly healthy. For example, tins of cooked beans and pulses are real time savers in a recipe. Just check the ingredients labels to make sure they aren’t HFSS.

Lastly, aiming to eat a healthy diet may sound more sedate than jumping on the bandwagon of the new anti-UPF trend, but it’s more likely to last in the long run and lead to good health. Which means you will no longer need to wait around for the next new trend to come along promising wellness in a diet. 

So my last piece of advice to help keep you going is all about motivation. It is always easier to do something difficult if you do it in company, so resolve to spend more time sharing healthy food. After all, enjoying meals with others will give your mental health a good boost too. At the very least, everyone knows that misery loves company.

Hopefully this will help give you a healthy kickstart to 2024. And with the diet sorted you just need to add in some running…You might as well give parkrun a go and join the masses who are keeping it firmly at the top of the healthy-living leaderboard. 

For the rest of us who might already be training for an event let’s hope the weather will allow us to keep getting outdoors this winter. In the meantime here’s a recipe that will keep you fuelled up and ready to go. This Irish soda bread with pears will help give you a good start to the day and makes a great accompaniment to any meal.

Irish soda bread with pears 2

Suzanne Anderegg


I am originally from Canada but I settled in the UK after studying at university. Sports have always been a part of my life and I have participated and competed in several throughout my childhood. But today I would describe myself as mostly a runner, a mother of 3 grown-ups and a keen cook. As a teenager I was a sprinter and a slightly reluctant cross-country runner but while my children grew up I started to run further and further distances. I never thought that I could ever run anything longer than a half marathon but when my runner husband decided to do a marathon for his 50th in 2019 I found that I had a serious case of FOMO. My children encouraged me to sign up for my first marathon and I ran it just to see if I could finish. Somehow my time was good enough to qualify for the Boston 2020 Marathon. However, due to Covid it was postponed several times.

Like many other runners, I spent much of my time in the Covid lockdown keeping up my fitness by participating in virtual races while waiting for the real events to start up again. As time went on I found myself becoming fully immersed in the world of endurance running and ran the Threshold Trail Series ultra, Race to the Stones. Unfortunately, by the time the Boston Marathon was finally held in late 2021, I could not go because US travel restrictions were still in place. Although I missed my chance to run it and will now have to requalify again at least my time spent keeping in good shape wasn’t wasted. These days I participate in everything from half marathons up to ultras and have also run the Great Glen Way and West Highland Way in the Scottish Highlands.

I also work as a Registered Nutritionist with children and families and founded the consultancy Just add water® in 2019. I write a blog at to give free information and advice about nutrition and running whilst also sharing some of my favourite healthy recipes. The website is mainly aimed at busy families who want to make easy to prepare meals that are both healthy and really tasty, and for active families who want to know what they should be eating before, during and after playing sport.

I have always enjoyed cooking and previously cooked as a profession and I like to share my passion for good food. I have been involved in teaching cookery in schools, children's centres and for the NHS. I also enjoy entering the odd competition to push myself out of my comfort zone. I was awarded Highly Commended at the Teflon™ Diamond Standard Awards 2020 national culinary competition in the category of Keen Home Cook and was a National Finalist in 2022 & 2019. I have also had my recipes published in The Guardian's supplement, Cook; and featured in the 2012 Waitrose LOVE life calendar (July); and selected for inclusion in the 2020 #AnyWhichWayaBix Weetabix recipe book.

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