‘Junk food’ is a term used by the media to refer to food which is:
- Processed and rich in ‘empty calories’ (with little or no nutritional value)
- High in sugar, salt, food additives/preservatives, some fats and refined carbohydrates (like white bread, chips, pizza and donuts)
- Low in nutrients that are good for our health - like the fibre, vitamins and minerals in fruit and vegetables
- Cheap, widely available and heavily marketed
- Increasing the risk of an ‘eating addiction’, making it more likely that we’ll eat more than we need and put on weight
What are the health risks?
1. Each part of a ‘junk food’ diet has its own specific health risks:
- Sugar has been linked to an increased risk of becoming overweight or obese and an increased risk of diabetes, heart attack, stroke, dementia and some cancers.
- Salt appears to increase the risk of heart disease, stroke, osteoporosis (causing weak or brittle bones), kidney stones and age related kidney failure.
- Industrially produced trans fats are associated with an increased risk of heart disease, infertility, Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, and some cancers. Fortunately levels of trans fats in the UK have been reduced to safer levels in recent years.
- Refined carbohydrates (like white rice, potatoes and white bread) can increase the risk of diabetes, which in turn increases the risk of heart attack and stroke.
- Highly processed foods increase the risk of weight gain and obesity, with their associated health risks.
- Junk food consumption has been associated with poorer mental health, particularly during adolescence – compared with a healthier diet.
2. However, what ‘junk food’ doesn’t include also matters:
Fruit and vegetables are important for our health, because of the fibre, vitamins and minerals they contain. However, fruit and vegetables are usually in short supply when it comes to ‘junk food.’ That matters. For example research published in 2014 found that eating seven or more portions of fruit and vegetables reduced the risk of death from heart disease and cancer by 31 per cent and 25 per cent respectively.
3. And eating too much heightens the risk.
Sugary drinks are a particular problem here. They add calories, usually without fibre or nutrients, so don’t make you feel full. And some people find the taste of junk food almost addictive. This increases the likelihood of overeating and so becoming obese. In turn this increases your risk of diabetes five fold, doubles your risk of heart failure and also increases your risk of stroke and some cancers.
That’s why, here at Age Watch, we’ve identified what we’re calling Junk Food Syndrome. Eating too much food high in sugar, salt, unhealthy fats and refined carbohydrates and eating too little food rich in fibre, vitamins and nutrients increases your risk of:
- Becoming overweight or obese
- But undernourished
- And cumulatively increases the risk of serious illness
So why do people eat ‘junk food’?
Knowing that ‘junk food’ is bad for your health sadly isn’t always a significant deterrent. In a Gallup poll in the US in 2013, more than 70% of people who eat fast food weekly or more frequently believe it is not "good for you."
Is low cost a factor? Perhaps not as much as we might expect. The Gallup poll suggested that, at least in the US, wealthier people (and younger people) were those most likely to eat fast food. However, in the UK the growth of fast food outlets has been greater in poorer areas. Whether this is due to demand or to cheaper rents and/or easier licensing provision isn’t yet clear.
Is availability a significant factor? Yes, according to various studies in the UK which have shown that the more fast food outlets and takeaways in an area the higher the levels of childhood obesity.
We don’t have up to date figures for the UK but know that US fast food companies spend over $4 billion a year on advertising. What seems likely is that the advertising budget for ‘junk food’ in the UK is greater than the advertising budget for public health.
Evolution could also be relevant here. Our bodies need some sugar, salt and fat to function effectively. For many thousands of years humans lived by hunting and couldn’t be sure when the next meal would come along. So it made sense to eat as much as possible when the opportunity arose to tide you over possible periods of famine. This made perfect evolutionary sense – until fast food and snacks became so readily available, as the BBC explained in an article focusing on sugar in particular.
The convenience of ‘fast food’ and snacks is also a major factor, particularly when people are short of time. Sometimes too people may turn to ‘junk food’ as a form of comfort food if they are feeling tired, stressed or depressed.
Also, junk food doesn’t usually make you feel full for long- meaning you are more likely to feel hungry again soon, start snacking and so consume more calories than if you had eaten healthier, more nutritious food.
What can we do?
1. We usually know what food is good for us and what food isn’t. So we need to act on what we know – and remember that diabetes, heart attack, stroke and cancer are potentially lurking in the food that seems so tasty or convenient.
2. We can re educate our sense of taste (as in the example below).
“A few months ago I took a 3 month time out from sugar. I basically cut out added sugar from my diet (only fruits allowed). This 3 month break worked well and when I returned to regular food I was significantly less prone to eating highly sugary foods. I also enjoy them less.” Member of the Age Watch User Group Advisory Panel 2015
3. If we’re tempted by junk food there’s research that suggests telling yourself you’ll have some later (but not specifying when) can help keep temptation at arm’s length.
4. If the low price of junk food is tempting, we can take advantage of tips on how to eat healthily on a budget.
5. When time is short remember that nature provides a range of healthy fast food, like fruit and nuts.
6. We can help and encourage family, friends and colleagues to adopt a healthier diet – as evidence from health psychology suggests we are influenced by those close to us.
7. We can support public health campaigns – in particular campaigns to reduce the marketing of junk food to children and to pressure food companies to produce food lower in sugar, salt and fat and higher in fibre, vitamins and minerals.
8. We can swap junk food for nutrient dense foods that help us feel fuller longer and are good sources of vitamins and minerals, fibre, protein, good quality carbohydrates & monounsaturated fatty acids.
Reviewed and updated by Hannah Kurian July 2018. Next review date June 2022.