Why is junk food so bad for you?

Hamburger and junk food

Hamburger and junk food - Credit: Getty Images/Ingram Publishing

Hard day at the office? Fancy treating yourself tonight? Before you reach for the takeaway menus consider the potential damage – and whether you could do a better job yourself. Richard Porritt investigates.

Salty snacks served on a plate

Salty snacks served on a plate - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Kebabs. Burgers. Hot dogs. Curries. Noodles. And let’s not forget Britain’s favourite fish and chips.

Takeaways and fast food have long been a staple of modern life. Let’s not be killjoys. The odd battered sausage probably won’t send you to an early grave. But if the pizza delivery guy addresses you by your first name, maybe your diet needs a reboot.

Is Britain addicted?

Take-away food often has a very minimal vegetable content

Take-away food often has a very minimal vegetable content - Credit: Getty Images/Digital Vision

A recent survey suggested the average Briton spends an incredible £110 a month on takeaways and fast food while more than 25% of British adults are obese, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation. That is around 5% more than Germany and 10% more than France.


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So why do we keep pulling up at the drive-through window?

There is evidence to suggest the brain treats junk food in the same way as alcohol or drugs – kebabs and double cheese burgers stimulate the reward pathway. Had a good day? Reward yourself. Had a bad day? You need a pick me up.

Cheerful young woman eating a pizza

Cheerful young woman eating a pizza - Credit: Getty Images/Wavebreak Media

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Why is it so bad for you?

With junk food it is as much about what you can’t see as what you can – the hidden salt, sugar and the general lack of anything green.

Saxmundham nutritionist Mary Skelcher explains: “Fast food tends to be based on carbohydrates (potatoes, bread, sugar) and fat with some protein. The vegetable content is minimal.

“If we add a sugar-laden drink and dessert we get a high-calorie but low nutrition meal.

“Taste buds adapt to the levels of salt and sugar that we consume and it becomes a habit.

“Try this test: if you have sugar in tea or coffee reduce the amount by half. To begin with you’ll notice, but after a while you’ll be happy with the new taste.”

Can we beat junk food?

Like most things, moderation is key. Of course you will be tempted again by a Chinese takeaway – just make it occasional.

And there are ways to make your junk food better for you, Mary said: “If you must have fast food, make it healthier. Skip the high-calorie drink and go for water instead. It helps if you think of shakes, full-sugar fizzy drinks and even latte as food rather than drinks.

“Order the smallest portion. The larger size may seem better value but your waistline will pay the price. And eat slowly. This sounds odd for fast food, but you’re likely to eat less as your brain will receive the message that your stomach is full before you order that dessert. And avoid the sauces. Ketchup is nearly a quarter sugar.”

Are there alternatives?

Yes – but, sadly for the kids, burgers cooked at home don’t come with toys. On the upside they also don’t have the added doses of sugar and salt.

Mary said: “Try home-cooked versions of fast food, for example a burger is simple to make and can be nutritious.

“Oven-chips or wedges will have less fat (and fewer calories) than fries or, even better, try sweet potato wedges.”

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