It’s no secret that junk food isn’t the healthiest fare you can put on your plate. But, have you ever wondered why these foods don’t belong in your diet? Sure, they’re convenient. Rip open a package and pop it in the microwave, and lunch or dinner is on the table. Fast food that you pick up at a drive-thru window also counts as junk food. But what does the term “junk food” really mean? It’s any highly processed food that’s altered from its natural state by removing fiber and nutrients and replacing them with additives. Let’s look at some reasons why you should avoid the junk food trap when you’re trying to stay fit and healthy.
Junk Food is Bad for Your Metabolic Health
Junk food is usually high in refined carbohydrates and contains added sugar, sometimes in the form of high-fructose corn syrup. Processed convenience items are also typically low in fiber. As a result, your digestive tract digests these foods quickly and the glucose enters your bloodstream just as rapidly. This leads to a sharp rise in glucose followed by a surge in insulin. The insulin surges that junk food creates forces the pancreas to pump out more insulin. Over time, this can tire the insulin-producing cells in the pancreas to the point that they can’t keep up. That’s when type 2 diabetes sets in. Some studies link junk food and sugar-laden treats with a higher risk of insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes.
More Likely to Cause Weight Gain
Not surprisingly, junk food is also associated with weight gain. The surge in insulin you get when you eat refined carbs and sugar promotes fat storage and makes it harder for your body to mobilize fat as a fuel source. It’s no coincidence that people who eat fast food and sugary fare are more likely to be overweight or obese. In fact, the rise in obesity rates began in the 1970s; around the time fast-food restaurants started rapidly expanding across the country. In addition, there’s some evidence that junk food and sugar is addictive. Many processed, packaged foods are engineered with special flavorings and texture qualities that keep you coming back for more. It’s a hard cycle to break. Best not to get sucked in!
Higher Risk of Cancer?
Some studies link diets rich in junk food with a greater risk of some forms of cancer. In fact, a study called the NutriNet-Sante study found that cancer risk rises by 12% with every 10% increase in the consumption of highly processed foods. In fact, some cancer cells have insulin receptors on their surface. Research shows type 2 diabetics, where insulin levels are higher, have a greater risk of cancer of the liver, pancreas, breast, uterus, colon, rectum, and urinary tract. In addition, junk food lacks the natural antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds that you find in whole, plant-based foods. There’s some evidence that these dietary components may protect against these forms of cancer. We also don’t fully know the health impact of the 3,000 food additives approved for use in the United States. Although they’re generally recognized as safe by the FDA, some scientists question their long-term safety.
Bad for Your Mood and Mental Health
If eating junk food doesn’t harm you physically, it might play with your brain. Studies link junk food diets with a higher incidence of depression. In fact, research that examined 41 studies of almost 33,000 people showed a link between highly processed foods and symptoms of depression. Another Spanish study found a 51% higher risk of depressive symptoms in those who ate lots of junk food. One way that junk food exerts its effects is by increasing systemic inflammation. Inflammation can not only impact your risk of chronic disease; It seems to play a role in depression as well.
Junk Food Can it Disrupt Hormones?
It’s not clear whether the additives in junk food have an impact on hormones. However, the packaging fast food is wrapped in is under scrutiny. A study found that wrappers and containers used to hold fast food contain phthalates, chemicals that disrupt the endocrine system and the hormones it produces. In animals, phthalates are linked with infertility, preterm birth, and birth defects. By mimicking the effects of hormones in the body, phthalates may increase the risk of cancer as well. Studies show that people who eat fast food frequently have higher levels of phthalates in their bloodstream. So, fast food is bad for your health, but the packaging it comes in is too!
They Get You Hooked
It’s not just the convenience of highly processed foods that keeps you coming back for more. In animals, sugary foods cause increased release of the “reward hormone,” dopamine. If you constantly eat these foods, your brain hides dopamine receptors because they’re overwhelmed by the torrents of dopamine hitting them. This reduces dopamine stimulation and that feeling of reward. Your body wants to feel the effects of dopamine again, so you start to crave the foods that stimulate its release. In fact, animals experience a form of withdrawal when they’re deprived of sugar and junk food. It’s not clear whether the same happens in humans, but many experts believe it does.
Health Trumps Convenience
The appeal of junk foods is how convenient it is to consume. But don’t pay for convenience with your health. Highly processed junk won’t sustain your body as nutrient-dense whole foods will. Plan ahead so you can avoid drive-thrus and packaged food. Prepare a week’s worth of healthy meals on Sunday and freeze them, so you have healthy, convenient options during the week. Yes, you’re busy, but the future health problems you develop from eating junk are inconvenient and consume time and resources too. Keep that in mind when you’re tempted to bite into some junk!
· MDLinx Internal Medicine. “Processed and junk foods: Bad news for pretty much every system in the body”
· OncologyNutrition.org. “Sugar and Cancer”
· Curr Diab Rep. 2013 Apr; 13(2): 213–222.
· The Guardian. “Eating junk food raises risk of depression, says multi-country study”
· Reuters.com. “Fast food may expose consumers to phthalates”