I've eaten no sugar or ultra-processed foods for 6 months - these are the foods I can't live without

Steffan with some of his favourite foods after six months on a new diet pictured with fruit and nuts
-Credit: (Image: Wales Online)

A man who cut sugar and ultra-processed food out of his diet six months ago says he feels much better and can't imagine how he would ever go back to his old eating habits. WalesOnline Editor Steffan Rhys, 44, decided to pursue a different diet after the excesses of Christmas 2023.

He said: "I honestly didn’t think I’d last that long and once the guilt of over-eating and over-drinking in December wore off, I'd be back to normal, having struggled to go without chocolate or find time to make a breakfast without granola or a quick lunch without bread and crisps.

"But six months on, and I've stuck with it, it's getting easier, more rewarding and now the only struggle is seeing how I’d go back to old eating habits. It was initially a bit daunting to think about how I’d remove such normal everyday foods from my diet while still being able to eat simple and cheap meals."

This is what Steffan did:

  • no chocolate (or, in fact, any biscuit, dessert or refined sugar)

  • no ultra-processed foods or ingredients (supermarket bread and granola were the ones I ate most)

  • less red and processed meat

  • more legumes (chickpeas, lentils, beans)

  • more nuts

  • more olive oil

  • eating the rainbow (more on this below)

He said: "The other key thing I did to learn about what to eat was listen a lot to the Zoe Science and Nutrition podcast."

"Zoe is a health science company with three co-founders, including Professor Tim Spector, professor of genetic epidemiology at King’s College London and one of the world’s leading researchers. Zoe has not asked me to write this article, or paid me, or been in contact with me at all.

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Some of the most common ultra-processed foods (or UPFs) are:

  • supermarket packaged bread

  • breakfast cereals and granola

  • flavoured yoghurt

  • chocolate, biscuits and crisps

  • energy and granola bars

  • fizzy drinks

  • microwave ready meals

Steffan said: "For me, the big shocks here were granola and flavoured yoghurt. I ate granola for breakfast every day, assuming it was healthy (or at least healthier than cereal). In fact, I was having a breakfast massively high in added sugar and ultra-processed ingredients (you can find granola that isn't).

"Humans have been processing food for thousands of years. Bread, butter, cheese and (healthier) yoghurt are all processed foods. But ultra-processed food is a step further, adding things like starches, emulsifiers, concentrates, artificial sweeteners and flavourings. The basic rule? If it's wrapped in plastic and it contains at least one ingredient that you don't typically find in a domestic kitchen, it's ultra-processed."

This is what Steffan is now doing:

  • cooking more legumes either as a main or side part of a meal

  • eating nuts with Greek yoghurt and fruit for breakfast instead of granola

  • using more olive oil (though the soaring price is killing me)

  • eating more vegetables

What have I learned so far?

Steffan said: "I don’t own weighing scales and, even if I did, I didn’t weigh myself when I first changed my diet. So I can't tell you how much weight I've lost, but I feel slimmer and clothes fit a bit more comfortably than they did.

"I can handle exercise a bit easier too (I exercise regularly and did before I changed my diet too) and that I’m hungry less often. Don't get me wrong, by midday I'm starving for lunch.

"And I still have two young kids and a stressful job so my sleep is poor and I still regularly feel pretty tired. I definitely don’t leap out of bed full of energy every day.

"I have no expertise in science or nutrition and it's been too short a period to determine any sort of long-term benefits but the Zoe website says 'whatever your age, if you switch from an unhealthy to a healthy eating pattern, you’ll likely see improvements in your cholesterol levels, blood sugar, inflammation, and weight'."

Here are Steffan's main tips:

  • cut out pre-made sauces and make them from scratch instead (you can make mayo with four ingredients, and the same goes for pesto and hummus, which are delicious and go great with carrots, celery or fresh sourdough bread)

  • beans are tastier than anyone has ever given them credit for — stock up on tins and cook them with herbs (black beans and fresh coriander and lime are a great side dish)

  • nuts are great: they're filling, healthy and taste delicious raw but even nicer cooked (fry them dry in a pan until they're golden brown and add them to chopped chicken or a fried/sautéed veg dish)

  • listen to the Zoe podcast — it makes food and nutrition so much easier to understand

  • eggs go with most things and can be made into so many different meals

  • eat the rainbow: this just means mixing and matching plant foods with different colours. Food variety is important and different colours mean different compounds and good chemicals which help your health

  • you don't need to make meat the centrepiece of a meal. I have not given up meat, in my house I wouldn't be allowed to anyway, but there has been a gradual shift away from big meaty centrepieces towards a greater variety of filling and satisfying vegetables dishes

  • fat is fine: nuts, avocado, olive oil, yoghurt are all full of healthy fats. It's the unhealthy fats and sugar in UPFs and meat that you need to try to limit

  • if you can’t imagine life without bread, think about ditching the mass-produced white supermarket bread and grab some freshly-made sourdough bread from a local bakery. It will likely have far fewer chemicals in it - but it will cost a hell of a lot more, upwards of £3-4 a loaf. I buy a loaf every two or three weeks as a weekend treat and have it with olive oil instead of butter (not that you should be scared of a bit of butter)

  • you don't have to completely cut out anything at all — even moderate improvements will have corresponding benefits.

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