The Stuff We Eat

Xand van Tulleken and Chris van Tulleken are twin doctors who produce a podcast and numerous videos about their various excursions into the field of obesity prevention. Based on “very robust data,” their sentiments are definitely against ultra-processed food, but what exactly is that? Journalist Helen Lewis pinned them down.

Dr. Chris suggests that one tip-off is the presence on the ingredients list of substances not normally found in a home kitchen. If you don’t usually have a beaker of sodium nitrite in the cabinet, don’t accept it in a packaged food item. And those are small, relatively tame words. To address other, more complicated words, there is a slogan in the conscious eating community: “If you can’t pronounce it, don’t eat it.”

Dr. Xand goes into details:

These kinds of foods are lying to you. If you get a pack of instant noodles, it smells and tastes like meaty, nourishing broth. Your brain is expecting amino acids and proteins. But what goes into your bloodstream is sugar and salt. And you don’t feel satisfied.

We are talking, of course, about the usual suspects: packaged sweets, cookies, pastries, cakes, and snacks. Oh, and prepared meals. And, of course, sugar-sweetened beverages, especially the ones imbued with exciting fizziness. An explainer from talks about the time and money spent to achieve “hyper-palatability”:

That is, companies refine the synergy between the different components of food, such as fat, salt, sugar, and carbohydrates, to ensure that they be as delicious as possible. The most worrying diagnosis? High consumption of ultra-processed foods is causing a disturbing rise in obesity in children.

None of this is exactly news, and that is the frustrating part. Though we all know it, not much seems to be done about it. Every now and then, along comes a person (or a matched pair of them) who sees the urgency. Lewis gave both brothers room to express the full scope of their concerns, and some interesting details came up. For one thing, in the van Tulleken family, like many others, weight discussions could lead to “a toxic brew of shame, resentment, and frustration.”

Dr. Xand has issued two warnings that are useful everywhere and always: “If you structure your family around the idea that one person has a problem and one person doesn’t, you’re going to be missing what a family is,” and, “It’s very hard to lose weight without changing your life.”

To Dr. Chris, this is, sadly, one of the situations where less is more, and parents might just have to give up and let go. “Love your family and leave them alone.”

The range widens

Of course, the existence of ultra-processed foods is not the only problem confronted by present-day people. The two began to see that mental issues were involved, with Xand being more likely to solve problems by eating. Also, the world now favors the idea that food can act in place of drugs. The brothers started a podcast, called “A Thorough Examination: Addicted to Food,” and brought in medical and psychological professionals to help them figure out “how two people with the same genes and upbringing can have such different approaches to food.”

They traced history back to where their paths through life had diverged, so they no longer shared the identical factors of environment and parenting. Dr. Xand moved to the U.S. to complete his degree in public health and at the same time, he and his partner were dealing with an unplanned pregnancy… “And my response to any kind of stress is to eat.”

(To be continued…)

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “‘The Revelation Was That I Was the Problem’,”, 08/07/21
Source: “Here’s what happens after a month of eating only ultra-processed,”, 05/24/21
Image by Benson Kua/CC BY-SA 2.0

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OVERWEIGHT: What Kids Say explores the obesity problem from the often-overlooked perspective of children struggling with being overweight.

About Dr. Robert A. Pretlow

Dr. Robert A. Pretlow is a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist. He has been researching and spreading awareness on the childhood obesity epidemic in the US for more than a decade.
You can contact Dr. Pretlow at:


Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
What’s Causing Obesity in Companion Animals and What Can We Do About It

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the World Obesity Federation 2019 Conference:
Food/Eating Addiction and the Displacement Mechanism

Dr. Pretlow’s Multi-Center Clinical Trial Kick-off Speech 2018:
Obesity: Tackling the Root Cause

Dr. Pretlow’s 2017 Workshop on
Treatment of Obesity Using the Addiction Model

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation for
TEC and UNC 2016

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the 2015 Obesity Summit in London, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s invited keynote at the 2014 European Childhood Obesity Group Congress in Salzburg, Austria.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2011 International Conference on Childhood Obesity in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2010 Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, TX.

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