Our headline on the front page was "Is Junk Food Killing You?". We're going to try and answer that question here. Firstly, let's define what we term as "Junk Food".
What is junk food?
Junk food is defined as food that is high in calories but low in nutrients. Another term that is often used when discussing junk food is 'empty calories'. Eating junk food clocks up on your daily intake of calories, but does not contribute to your nutritional needs.
Junk Food - Types
Junk food is purchased as ready-to-eat or quick-to-cook, either from 'fast' food vendors or pre-packed in snack size portions.
Burgers, chicken nuggets and chips are usually deep fried in fat. As well as being high in fat due to the cooking method, junk food is usually high in salt and/or sugar to make it tasty. The sugar, salt and fat are all thought to be contributors to obesity, diabetes and heart disease.
Another favourite type of junk food is crisps and crisp-like items such as hula hoops that are highly processed, come in various (artificial) flavours and are moulded into specific shapes (generally shapes with a lot of surface area).
Fizzy drinks are also included in the junk food category. They contain a lot of sugar and often caffeine. Traditionally, the concern with fizzy drinks has been centred solely on the sugar content. A 12 ounce can of coke contains 10 full teaspoons of sugar. Lately, however, nutritionists are becoming concerned about the acidity caused to the body from the carbon dioxide. It is thought that this could be bad for bone development as calcium is taken from the bones to neutralise the acid balance.
Additives & Preservatives
Junk food needs to have a long shelf life. Since no one wants to pay a lot of money for junk food, to be successful, it must also be relatively cheap. This means that it is usually made with inexpensive ingredients.
In order to maintain predetermined shapes and an appealing texture and taste, junk food contains a number of non-food ingredients or additives. It must also contain preservatives to meet long shelf life requirements.
Children particularly are found to react to some of the additives and preservatives used in junk food, either by becoming hyper-active or by developing allergies to them. What is probably more significant with children is that they lose their taste (or rather never develop a taste) for real food.
Junk Food and the Related Health Risks
There are many potential health problems associated with a diet that is high in junk foods. The most common one is obesity.
In today's environment where children get less exercise than ever because they are driven to school, where we are so rushed that we seldom have time to walk to work, it is easy enough anyway to consume more calories per day than your body needs. If you add junk food to the equation, it is almost a certainty that you will consume more calories in a day than your body can burn.
Obesity can be a serious health risk leading to Type 2 Diabetes and heart and circulatory diseases. Risks from too many fizzy drinks, as well as obesity from the calories, include osteoporosis.
The risks associated with vitamin deficiencies and malnutrition are simply too numerous to name.
Let's Kick The Junk Food Habit
It's true that it's hard to dictate to your children what they should eat when all of their friends are living off packets of reconstituted snacks and fast food. Even if you try to get your kids off to a good start in the morning with breakfast at home, half of the cereals on sale are so full of sugar and salt that they too are adding to the junk food total for the day.
There's no easy answer, but the start must be to try to keep healthy food at your own table. Healthy food is generally food that has been processed very little – it should closely resemble how it grew or was raised. You'll be surprised how few aisles you need to shop in at your local supermarket if you stick to 'ingredients' for cooking, not prepared foods. It will be cheaper too. Get in the habit of reading the labels on food – look at the ingredients – do you recognise most of them or do they sound like a chemistry lesson?
If you are really a junk food household, you need a strategy for changing to healthier eating styles. It will involve the introduction of new foods and probably more cooking. Before starting to try to eliminate junk foods, make sure that you know what your healthy options for food are. Also remember that it might take a little time for new tastes to develop. People are creatures of habit, but it is possible to change.
Healthy eaters usually avoid eating junk food not because they are trying to be healthy, but because they find it genuinely unappealing. If you must eat junk food, eat it occasionally as a treat rather than routinely. When you do decide to eat junk food, pick the best of what is available. For example, some fast food is grilled and not fried and usually contains less calories.