By Nina Radcliff, MD
There is a saying: ‘We are what we eat.” If that’s the case, let’s choose not to be cheap, fast, easy, or junk. The problem is that junk food is cheap, fast, easy, and yummy, making it easy to ignore the all important fact that it is truly just junk.
Dr. Nina’s What You Need to Know About Junk Food:
What is junk food? The definition is foods that:
- Have little to no nutritional value, resulting in empty calories. Additionally, junk food often replaces eating more nutritious foods. We don’t typically see someone eating cookies and then reaching for a fruit.
- Contain ingredients that are considered unhealthy when regularly eaten
- Have ingredients that are considered unhealthy in general
What is considered “junk food?”
- Snack foods: chips, candy bars, cookies
- Fast foods: fries, chicken nuggets, shakes
- Certain breakfast cereals
Is junk food addicting? Yes. Ingredients in junk food (e.g. sugar) can hack into an area of our brain that releases “feel good” hormones. These hormones were designed to help us survive and provide a reward mechanism, similar to when we see someone we love. It keeps drawing us back. But in this case, it is harmful, like a moth drawn to a flame.
There is evidence to suggest that refined sugar is far more addictive than cocaine—one of the most addictive and harmful substances currently known! Other studies have shown that there may be cross-tolerance between sugars and addictive drugs. For example, someone with a long history of sugar consumption can become tolerant or desensitized to the pain relieving effects of morphine. In other words, they would need more.
Why does junk food taste so good? There is a term called the “bliss point.” In relation to junk food, it is the amount of an ingredient—sugar, salt, fat—that optimizes tastiness and…bliss. For example, some junk food manufacturers and fast food restaurants purposely tweak the amount of sugar that will send us “over the moon, and send their products flying off the shelves” or out of the fryer.
Manufacturers and fast food restaurants may also purposely appeal to our other sensory pleasures. For instance, the feeling when we bite into a crispy piece of fried chicken or experience the oh-so-perfect gooey sensation of cheese. Or, how about the aroma of French fries? These savory qualities are likely not random. Instead, they are likely due to lots of research and testing.
And let’s not forget salt. It is a miracle ingredient in junk food because it not only appeals to our taste buds and preserves food, but it also masks the potentially unsavory taste of artificial flavorings.
Well, at least there are regulations now that protect us from trans-fats. Right? Yes and no. First of all, trans-fats are artificially created by adding hydrogen to liquid vegetable oil in order to make it solid. Why? Because it spices up the flavor and texture, as well as prolongs the shelf life. The problem is that trans-fats increase our bad cholesterol as well as our risk for heart disease and stroke.
Manufacturers are allowed to claim that a product has zero trans fats if it contains less than 0.6 grams of trans fats in a serving. But by dividing serving sizes, they can side-step the rules. Take for example a snack size bag of chips. If there are two servings per bag and each serving contains 1 gram of trans fats, the manufacturers can then reconfigure the number of servings to 4, changing the amount of trans fat to 0.5 grams per serving. Talk about the devil being in the details! To avoid this, we need to understand serving sizes, and at the same time also assess the ingredients to zero in on anything that states “partially hydrogenated” or “PHO.”
A diet consisting of junk food is like having one foot in the grave and the other one on a banana peel. Despite the fact that it increases our risk for the number one, two, and three killers in the United States, it is cheaply available in every nook and cranny. Each day, 1 in 4 Americans visits a fast food restaurant. Every year Americans spend more money on junk food than new cars, higher education, books, or movies! It’s time to step off the banana peel and up out of the grave with wise healthy eating choices.