The Pulse

Junk Food Reality Check: How it Affects Your Body and Brain

Posted by SFSH on July 17, 2019

It’s no secret that regular physical activity can have a dramatic impact on your overall health, but living a healthy lifestyle doesn’t stop there. Another major component of the health equation is the food (fuel) you put into your body. Most people believe that their diet is fairly healthy, but you’d be surprised the impact that your favorite sweet or salty snacks could be having on your body. Whether you’re regularly fighting sickness or coping with chronic aches and pains, changing what’s on your plate might be your simplest solution and your first step toward a healthier lifestyle. 

Read on to learn more about the roll snacks play in sickness and what you can do to de-junk your diet.


What’s on Your Plate?

When you hear “junk food,” what do you think of? This phrase is often used in reference to food’s nutritional value and generally refers to any food that isn’t particularly good for you. “Fast food,” on the other hand, is a specific type of junk food that you might find at drive thru chain or sitting under a warmer at a gas station. Junk foods are typically composed of high levels of salt, sugar and artificial colors—which make them an appealing option for those that are looking for a quick meal that tastes good. Unfortunately, though these foods may taste good, they do next to nothing for your body from a nutritional standpoint. As effective as they might be at satisfying your hunger, consuming too much junk food can ultimately do far more harm than good. In light of all of this, it becomes particularly concerning that, according to the National Center for Health Statistics, nearly 40% of Americans eat fast food or junk food on any given day. 

Now, it’s around this point in the conversation where people start to think to themselves “so what if I eat unhealthy foods? As long as I’m not overweight, I can eat whatever I want.” This can be a very dangerous way to think. Check out this video from The Doctors on the health hazards of junk food: 

 

 

Short-Term Effects

Most people think of their diet as exclusively affecting their long-term health, but an unhealthy diet can have significant impacts on how you feel day-to-day as well. We’ve listed out some of the most common short-term symptoms of diets filled with fat, salt and sugar:

Decreased Energy & Focus

When it comes to focus, energy and overall productivity, food can have a substantial impact on your day-to-day life. Your body processes different foods in different ways, and choosing the wrong foods (junk foods) can leave you feeling groggy and sluggish. The Harvard Business Review explains it like this:

“Some foods, like pasta, bread, cereal and soda, release their glucose quickly, leading to a burst of energy followed by a slump. Others, like high fat meals (think cheeseburgers and BLTs) provide more sustained energy, but require our digestive system to work harder, reducing oxygen levels in the brain and making us groggy.”

Can you remember a time when you felt groggy or sluggish in the afternoon? Odds are good that you had junk food for lunch that day.

Bloating

It’s a well-known fact that too much salt and fat are bad for your diet, but not everyone knows exactly why that is. In addition to the sluggishness caused by too much junk food in your diet, you may also experience feelings of physical discomfort associated with your food choices—namely bloating and headaches. When you eat too many salty foods, the cells in your body start to hold excessive amounts of water and, when that happens, you begin to look and feel bloated. 

Sugar “Crash”

Sometimes referred to as “Reactive Hypoglycemia,” sugar crashes are a common sign that your diet has been overloaded with sugars. In a sugar crash, your blood has too much glucose (sugar) in it, which triggers your body to begin producing massive amounts of insulin to compensate. Insulin works to lower the amount of sugar in our blood and, when it is over-produced, it can lead to headaches, nausea, sweating and faintness. 

Acid Reflux & Indigestion

Anyone can experience acid reflux, heartburn and indigestion, but these conditions can also each be caused by overeating fatty foods. Fatty foods can stick around in your stomach for far longer than other foods, which can cause your stomach to produce more acid. More acid means you have a greater chance of experiencing acid reflux and, in turn, heartburn. Additionally, too many fatty foods can lead to a constant, nagging pain in the upper abdomen, often referred to as indigestion. 

Poor Sleep

Sleep remains one of the more mysterious parts of the human experience and we’re far from cracking the code on why, exactly, we need sleep, what sleep does to our minds and what prevents us from getting a good night’s sleep. However, there is some research out there that points to the role that our diets play in our ability to start snoozing. Some studies have found that those who consume less fiber and more saturated fats and sugars through the day risk enduring significantly worse sleep than those with a more balanced diet. 

Long-Term Effects


People often think of the same small handful of long-term impacts their diet can have on their health but, in reality, the list of conditions and associated complications for diet-related health issues is essentially endless. With that being said, we put together a list of some of the most common long-term conditions plaguing junk food junkies:
 

  • Obesity & Type 2 Diabetes
    Perhaps the most commonly thought of long-term effect of a poor diet, obesity serves as a catalyst for numerous other health issues—not the least of which is type 2 diabetes. When your diet is made up excessively salty, fatty or sugary foods, it becomes easy to consume more calories than you burn, leading to significant weight gain and obesity. When an individual is obese, their body carries an excessive amount of fat tissue—which can cause their cells to become resistant to insulin and, in turn, cause type 2 diabetes. It’s estimated that nearly 80% of all type 2 diabetes cases are preventable if a person eats right, avoids tobacco products and gets a healthy amount of exercise
     
  • Depression
    According to a 2015 study done by the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, diets that included high levels of carbs and sugar were associated with greater levels of depression. This means that while science has shown that a better diet can help you feel better physically, it may be a key component of helping you feel better mentally as well. 
     
  • Digestive Issues
    According to livestrong.com, a poor diet can lead to constipation, diverticular disease and gallstones. Each of these conditions is characterized as resulting from diets high in fat and cholesterol and lacking in dietary fiber. By working a healthier mix of nutrients into your diet, you can provide your organs with the tools they need to operate effectively and streamline your digestive process.
     
  • Teeth & Bone Issues
    According to the International Osteoporosis Foundation, when your diet includes the appropriate levels of calcium and vitamin D, your bones are better-equipped to produce and maintain bone tissue—which is a vital component of avoiding osteoporosis and other musculoskeletal disorders. When your diet lacks these critical nutrients, your bones become weaker. When your bones are weaker, you risk serious injury and even death from minor falls later in life. If you aren’t particularly worried about the health risks associated with weaker bones, a bad diet can also lead to weaker enamel, gum disease and tooth decay.
     
  • Heart Disease & Stroke
    The Non-Communicable Diseases Alliance estimates that poor diets account for about 31% of coronary heart disease cases and 11% of stroke cases. Heart disease, which is sometimes referred to under the blanket term of “cardiovascular disease,” is generally characterized by narrow or blocked blood vessels. When your diet is unhealthy, it increases the amount of cholesterol particles in your blood and allows plaque to form inside your arteries. These partially-blocked arteries can ultimately lead to heart attacks and strokes.
     
  • Cancer
    According to the NCD Alliance, low intake of fruits and vegetables is estimated to cause roughly 19% of gastrointestinal cancer. In contrast, that same organization estimates that approximately 40% of cancers can be avoided by simply maintaining a healthy diet, increasing physical activity and avoiding tobacco. Knowing this, it’s easy to see just how vital it is to maintain a healthy diet and how detrimental a lifestyle of junk food consumption can be to your overall health.
     
  • Early Death
    We’ve already established that a poor diet can increase your risk of cancer, heart disease, diabetes and other serious medical conditions. Knowing this, it’s easy to see how an unregulated diet can lead to an early death. Fortunately, many of the effects of a poor diet can be avoided by correcting your eating habits and adopting exercise before your symptoms become severe.

 

Top Foods and Beverages to Avoid

At this point, you may be convinced that a better diet could be beneficial, but significant changes to your diet can be hard to make. To help you get started here’s a list of some of the biggest roadblocks you’ll face on the road to proper dietary discipline. 

1. Soda


 Cutting out soda has been increasing in popularity over the last decade—and with good reason. For those who haven’t already done so, cutting soda from their diet is an excellent way to drastically reduce the risk of dangerous diseases such as liver, kidney and heart disease as well as stroke and diabetes. When you drink soda, even if it’s diet, you can raise your blood pressure, your glucose levels and your bad cholesterol levels.

2. Packaged Sweets
 
Whether it’s a brownie, a cookie or a Twinkie, packaged sweets are loaded with sugars and trans fats. When you regularly consume trans fats, it can lead to cancer, infertility and cognitive disorders. Still looking to satisfy your sweet tooth? Try baking your sweets on your own at home so you know exactly what’s in them. 

3. Energy Drinks

Energy drinks are a sweet, caffeinated sensation that many people turn to for added energy throughout the day. However, the things that make these drinks so effective at keeping you awake also make them particularly bad for your body. They are loaded with sugar, carbs and caffeine that can collectively lead to heart palpitations, dehydration, headaches, insomnia and high blood pressure.

4. Fruit Drinks

Fruity drinks are deceptive. The labels are often covered with images of fresh strawberries, oranges or grapes but, inside, they contain large amounts of high fructose corn syrup, which can greatly increase your risk of type 2 diabetes. When it comes to fruit juice, stick with beverages that are 100% fruit juice. Otherwise, water and a bowl of fresh fruit would be your healthiest bet. 

5. Chips

When you say “junk food,” chips are the image that jump into most people’s heads. Their greasy, salty exterior and satisfying crunch make them the go-to snack food for many people, but they come loaded with saturated fat, salt and sugar. If you’re looking for a snack with some crunch, try air-popped popcorn, carrots or celery sticks. 

The food we eat, and the quantities we eat it in, play a massive role in our overall health, but we can’t always see the impacts our diet is having. It’s possible to have a slim waste and obstructed arteries, which is why it’s so important to make responsible decisions about what’s on our plate.

 

Sources

Brissette, C. (2018, March 01). This is your body on fast food. Retrieved June 27, 2019, from https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/wellness/sneaking-a-little-junk-food-doesnt-mean-all-is-lost/2018/02/26/828b75fa-1b36-11e8-9de1-147dd2df3829_story.html?utm_term=.7f553d03bdb3

Chi, A. (n.d.). How Does a Poor Diet Affect Your Digestive System? Retrieved June 27, 2019, from https://www.livestrong.com/article/435030-how-does-a-poor-diet-affect-your-digestive-system/

Ducharme, J. (2018, October 03). Almost 40% of Americans Eat Fast Food on a Given Day. Retrieved June 27, 2019, from https://time.com/5412796/fast-food-americans/

Friedman, R. (2019, March 27). What You Eat Affects Your Productivity. Retrieved June 27, 2019, from https://hbr.org/2014/10/what-you-eat-affects-your-productivity

Harvard School of Public Health. (2019, January 04). Healthy Eating Pyramid. Retrieved June 27, 2019, from https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/healthy-eating-pyramid/

Howard, J. (2018, October 03). Here's how much fast food Americans are eating. Retrieved June 27, 2019, from https://www.cnn.com/2018/10/03/health/fast-food-consumption-cdc-study/index.html

Johnson-Greene, C. (2019, January 29). Junk Food Effects: Stay Away from These 6 Foods and Beverages. Retrieved June 27, 2019, from https://universityhealthnews.com/daily/nutrition/junk-food-effects-stay-away-from-these-6-foods-and-beverages/

Lehman, S. (2019, June 24). The Reasons Why Americans Consume a Lot of Junk Food. Retrieved June 27, 2019, from https://www.verywellfit.com/why-you-eat-junk-food-2507661

Mayo Clinic Staff. (2018, March 22). Heart Disease. Retrieved June 27, 2019, from https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/heart-disease/symptoms-causes/syc-20353118

Noncommunicable Diseases Alliance. (n.d.). Unhealthy Diets and Obesity. Retrieved June 27, 2019, from https://ncdalliance.org/unhealthy-diets-and-obesity

St-Onge, M., Roberts, A., Shechter, A., & Choudhury, A. R. (2016, January 15). Fiber and Saturated Fat Are Associated with Sleep Arousals and Slow Wave Sleep. Retrieved June 27, 2019, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4702189/

The Doctors. (2013, June 25). Health Hazards of Junk Food -- The Doctors. Retrieved June 27, 2019, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YXynlliFyC8

Van De Walle, G. (2019, February 25). Should You Completely Avoid Junk Food? Retrieved June 27, 2019, from https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/avoiding-junk-food

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