Junk food is a multibillion-dollar industry. In his book, “Fast Food Nation,” Eric Schlosser, investigative journalist and best-selling author, describes how nearly 90 percent of America’s budget is spent on junk food.1 What is more appalling is that nearly 60 percent of food eaten in America are ultra-processed,2 convenience foods that can be purchased at your local gas station. These processed foods also account for nearly 90 percent of the consumption of added sugar in the U.S.
The industry doesn’t depend upon fate to drive sales. They use several tricks to paint their products in a better light. Since people eventually start questioning the decision to eat foods based solely on taste, especially with the increasing attention on healthy eating, the industry funds research to justify your cravings for their products.
Thus, when a study revealed that children who ate candy bars were 22 percent less likely to be overweight,3 it came as no surprise the research was funded by a trade association representing some of the country’s top candy makers. Marion Nestle, Ph.D., professor of nutrition at New York University, acknowledges that “The only thing that moves sales is health claims.”4
Nestle formerly served as nutrition policy adviser in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and editor of the Surgeon General’s Report on Nutrition and Health.5
Reliance on these ultra-processed foods is undoubtedly one of the primary factors driving skyrocketing rates of obesity and disease. Consumers may “know better,” but it is difficult to steer clear of foods that may be more addictive than cocaine for some.6 A recent report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reveals only 10 percent of Americans are getting enough fruit and vegetables in their daily diet.7
CDC Finds 90 Percent of Americans Don’t Eat Enough Real Food
Researchers used data from a 2015 government survey of a nationally representative sample of over 319,000 Americans. The survey asked the participants how many times in the past 30 days they had consumed 100 percent fruit juice, dried beans, whole fruit or green, orange or other vegetables.8 The researchers found those who consumed five each day lowered their risk of developing cancer, cardiovascular disease, Type 2 diabetes and obesity.
Researchers also found that consumption was even lower among adults and young adults living below the poverty line.9 The report from the CDC attributed the reduced intake to lack of access, cost and the perceived need for cooking and preparation that may get in the way of people consuming enough fruit and vegetables each day.
Depending upon the individual’s age and gender, federal guidelines recommend eating between 1.5 and two servings of fruit and two to three servings of vegetables a day.10 Seven of the top 10 leading causes of death are the result of chronic disease that researchers believe could be avoided with better nutrition. Seung Hee Lee-Kwan, Ph.D., of the CDC’s division of nutrition, physical activity and obesity, commented on the results of the report, saying:
“This report highlights that very few Americans eat the recommended amount of fruits and vegetables every day, putting them at risk for chronic diseases like diabetes and heart disease. As a result, we’re missing out on the essential vitamins, minerals, and fiber that fruits and vegetables provide.”
Ultra-Processed Is Ultra-Garbage
Any foods that aren’t whole foods, directly from the vine, ground, bush or tree, is considered processed. If it’s been altered in any way, it is processed, such as bread, pasta, canned or frozen foods. Depending on the amount of change the food undergoes, processing may be minimal or significant. For instance, frozen fruit is usually minimally processed, while pizza, soda, chips and microwave meals are ultra-processed foods.
The difference in the amount of sugar between foods that are ultra-processed and minimally processed is dramatic. Research has demonstrated that nearly 2 percent of calories in processed foods comes from sugar, while unprocessed foods contains no refined or added sugar.
In a cross-sectional study using data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey of over 9,000 participants, researchers concluded,11 “Decreasing the consumption of ultra-processed foods could be an effective way of reducing the excessive intake of added sugars in the USA.”
Despite what industry-funded studies, industry expert advice and advertising campaigns would like you to believe, junk food is still bad for you. In a short five-day-long study using 12 college age nonobese men, researchers discovered eating a junk food diet of macaroni and cheese, lunchmeat, sausage biscuits and microwavable meals, participants’ muscles lost the ability to oxidize glucose after a meal, which can lead to insulin resistance.12
Eating junk food is also associated with depression,13 low academic performance14 and behavioral problems by age 7.15 In my view, eating a diet consisting of 90 percent real food and only 10 percent or less processed foods is a doable goal for most and could make a significant difference in your weight and overall health.
I realize for many this is a challenge, but I know it can be done. Unless I’m traveling, my diet is very close to 100 percent real food, much of it grown on my property. You just need to make the commitment and place a high priority on it.
Garbage In — Garbage Out
The dangers of eating a diet high in sugar are well-documented and are even officially recognized by the government, as the 2015-2020 U.S. Dietary Guidelines16 recommend you limit sugar intake to no more than 10 percent of your total daily calories.17 Increased consumption of sugar is linked to obesity, Type 2 diabetes, insulin resistance and poor outcomes with other chronic diseases.
Research has demonstrated that as much as 40 percent of the health care budget in the U.S. is spent on chronic diseases directly related to the overconsumption of sugar.18 According to a report on global cancer, obesity is responsible for 500,000 cancer cases worldwide every year.19 Different mechanisms have been proposed for the development of disease associated with obesity, including oxidative stress, inflammation, obesity-induced hypoxia and the functional impairment of the immune system.20
Eating junk food has even further effects on your body, cognitive performance and your health. Many junk foods contain trans fat, associated with chronic inflammation, oxidative stress and a rising risk of cardiovascular disease.21 Trans fat also damages the inner lining, endothelium, of your blood vessels, increasing dysfunction and contributing to coronary artery disease.22 Results from the Nurses’ Health Study link trans fat to an increased risk of breast cancer after menopause.23
University of Wisconsin health system recommends their athletes steer clear of heavily processed foods to improve their sports performance.24 Instead, they recommend as much whole foods as possible, advising athletes to pack snacks when they participate in a full day of activities so they aren’t tempted to eat at the concession stands.
Harvard Business Review recommends you eat a well-balanced diet, full of whole foods, skimping on processed foods, to increase your productivity and creativity.25 They point out that poor lunch choices may derail your afternoon business decisions, stressing that fruits and vegetables aren’t just good for your body but they also help improve your cognitive performance. They cite a study from the University of Otago that found evidence eating fruits and vegetables is related to improved feelings of well-being and curiosity.26
Science Creates Cravings
Working with scientists, food manufacturers exert a lot of effort to create foods that have an addictive quality and make the experience of eating foods pleasurable.27 In his book, “Why Humans Like Junk Food,” scientist Steven Witherly, Ph.D., states there are two factors that make the experience of eating enjoyable.28 The first is sensation, which is composed of taste, aroma and the sensation you experience when food is in your mouth, known as orosensation.
The second factor is the caloric stimulation from macronutrients that make up the product: proteins, carbohydrates and fats. Food companies spend millions of dollars to achieve a level of satisfaction with their product that will drive the consumer to purchase their food over and over again.
The food industry looks for dynamic contrast within one product, such as a crunchy outer shell, followed by something soft or creamy. The more a food causes you to salivate, the greater coverage over your taste buds and the better taste response it receives. Witherly also lists “vanishing caloric density” as a means to an end of increasing your intake of a food product, leading to an increased risk of obesity. He explains:29
“Now, few foods qualify (meringues, diet soda, cotton candy and pretzels), but popcorn is perhaps the best example. Buttered, salted popcorn is very tasty, and you can eat a lot of it, repeat oral stimulation, since it isn’t that filling. In fact, I’ve seen some people actually accelerate their eating rate due to the absence of gastric satiety. Eating a whole bowl of popcorn for dinner is not a rare occurrence.
Foods that exhibit this rapid (oral) meltdown response may actually signal the brain that the food being ingested is lower in calories than it really is.
The reduced satiety response to high dynamic contrast foods (ice cream, chocolate and french fries) may partially explain Dr. Drewnowski’s observation that energy dense foods that melt down rapidly in the mouth, often lack satiety. Hence, foods that quickly “vanish” in the mouth are more rewarding, reduce gastric satiety and encourage over ingestion.”
Half of Cancer Deaths Related to Three Choices
A recently published study from the American Cancer Society used data gathered in 2014 and found that 45 percent of all deaths from cancer could be attributed to what the authors called “modifiable risk factors.”30 In other words, lifestyle choices that increase your risk of developing cancer. The risk behaviors researchers analyzed were:31
||Excess body weight
||Consuming red and processed meat
||Low consumption of fruit, vegetables, dietary fiber and dietary calcium
||Six cancer-associated infections
However, the researchers also concluded:32
“These results, however, may underestimate the overall proportion of cancers attributable to modifiable factors, because the impact of all established risk factors could not be quantified, and many likely modifiable risk factors are not yet firmly established as causal.”
In other words, while the data indicated almost 50 percent of cancer could have been prevented from modifiable factors, not all factors have been identified and environmental risk factors, such as exposure to toxins, were not considered.
Give Your Vegetables a Makeover
You may find adding vegetables to your diet challenging if you aren’t sure how to integrate them into your everyday choices, and you wouldn’t be the only one. In an effort to increase consumption of vegetables and fruit, Partnership for a Healthier America (PHA) has started a fruits and vegetable (FNV) campaign33 to improve public perception. This short video is a preview of the advertisements that are as enticing as those junk food manufacturers produce, and they seem to be working.
Consumption of fruits and vegetables appear to have been trending downward, which is a significant cause for concern for the coming generation of children who are not eating these foundational foods rich in nutrients and antioxidants in their formative years. The ads are using adults whom children and young adults recognize, demonstrating how delicious and tempting fruits and vegetables can be. The campaign is supported by several food companies, universities and insurance companies.34
According to the PHA, the new campaign has already changed some behavior. Materials provided to Forbes by Toni Carey, senior manager, communications and marketing for PHA, state: “Eighty percent of people bought or consumed more fruits and veggies after seeing FNV advertising” and “over 90 percent have a favorable impression of FNV and would engage with the brand in some way.”35 Here are several more suggestions that may make the process go smoothly at home:
As demonstrated by junk food manufacturers, advertising works to increase your interest in foods. Expose yourself and your family to the new ad campaign by PHA to help make eating fruits and vegetables more exciting and appetizing.
Give them the backstory
Talk with your family about how whole foods are grown, from seedlings to harvest to your table. When they know the process, the foods become more interesting. Talk about the benefits of the individual foods, such as tomatoes are high in lycopene that is a powerful antioxidant that protects your eyesight and fights aging.36
Shop along the perimeter
You can avoid eating processed foods if you don’t have them in the house. Shop around the perimeter of the grocery store where most of the whole foods reside, such as meat, fruits, vegetables, eggs and cheese. Not everything around the perimeter is healthy, but you’ll avoid many of the ultra-processed foods this way.
Include a variety of foods
Your brain enjoys a variety of textures and tastes. Vary the whole foods you purchase and the way you eat them. For instance, carrots and peppers are tasty dipped in hummus. You get the crunch of the vegetable and smooth texture of the hummus to satisfy your taste, your brain and your physical health.
Recognize and address with stress
Stress creates a physical craving for fats and sugar that may drive your addictive, stress-eating behavior. If you can recognize when you’re getting stressed and find another means of relieving the emotion, your eating habits will likely improve.
Preventing stress-related illnesses, including those created by poor eating habits, is easier to prevent than it is to recover from it. To read more about managing stress, see my previous article, “Documentary Investigates the Cause and Ramifications of Stress-Related Burnout.”
Start with fruits and vegetables that taste better than junk foods
There are fruits and vegetables that do taste better and help you feel better than junk foods. Starting with these may give you an advantage as you continue your journey to increasing your daily intake. Discover “13 Health Foods That Taste Better Than Junk Foods,” in this previous article.
Try the Emotional Freedom Techniques
Stress and anxiety have similar effects on your brain function and can lead to physical health problems. Anytime you change habits, or attempt to include something new in your daily routine, it may trigger a stress response.
The Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT) can help reduce your perceived stress, change your eating habits around stress, and help you create new, healthier eating habits that support your long-term health. To discover more about EFT, how to do it and how it may help reduce your stress and develop new habits, see my previous article, “EFT is an Effective Tool for Anxiety.”