Is Junk Food Really Junk?

The Lempert Report
April 16, 2018

A column in the Washington Post by dietitian Christy Brissette takes on the issue and defines “junk food.”

She says that essentially any food that is highly processed, high in calories and low in nutrients qualifies. Junk food, she goes on to write is also usually high in added sugars, salt and saturated or trans fats. Some evidence points to junk foods as being as addictive as alcohol and drugs.

She points out that there are long-term effects to consider. Eating a poor quality diet high in junk food is linked to a higher risk of obesity, depression, digestive issues, heart disease and stroke, type 2 diabetes, cancer, and early death. And as you might expect, frequency matters when it comes to the impact of junk food on your health. 

It’s reminiscent of Super Size Me, where Morgan Spurlock ate only at McDonalds while his then wife Alex Jameson, a nutritionist and well-being expert tracked his progress.  Brissette says that just a few days of junk food could change your metabolism. A small study of 12 healthy young men found eating junk food for just five days led to a reduced ability of their muscles to turn glucose into energy, even though they didn’t eat more calories as part of the study.  Another effect of just a couple of days of junk food is poor digestion. Because junk food lacks fiber, eating too much of it could lead to constipation. And a single fast food meal can narrow your arteries, leading to an increase in blood pressure. 

And the quick spike in your blood sugar, she reports, from eating junk foods high in refined carbohydrates and added sugars can cause a surge in insulin, leading to a quick drop in blood sugar. That leaves you feeling tired, cranky and hungry for more. 

The column also contains some good news, just one healthy meal a day worked into the typical American diet could reduce overall stress and inflammation in your body. Her advice: Once you’re aware of all of the short-term and long-term impacts of junk food and you still really want some, have it less than once a week and really savor it. Then get right back to enjoying nourishing, nutritious foods.