If you are asked to close your eyes and picture your five favorite foods in the whole world, what would they be? If your age is over thirty, chances are that at least two or more of these will be something cooked at home by a favorite close relative; mother, aunt, sister, wife, etc.
But if you are younger, four or more of these foods will be some calorie-rich food, which is mass-made such as a pasta, burgers and pizzas. If it is an Indian fast-food, maybe, there is some chosen vendor of ‘chaat’ at a stall close-by, who makes your taste-buds tingle when you pass by.
More often than not, the preferred food now is junk-food. This food is largely responsible (along with lack of exercise) for rendering 15% of urban Indians (and 26% percent of Americans) obese, making it a problem of epidemic proportions.
WHAT IS JUNK FOOD?
Coined in the 1960s, this is a term given to foods rich in calories, fats, sugar, sodium, caffeine, artificial additives and processed contents, etc. In nutritional parlance, these are empty calories, i.e. foods which do not have any nutritive value or vitamins, minerals, etc. This includes French fries, cookies, sodas, ice-cream, chips, burgers, hot dog s, ice-cream and amazingly enough many breakfast cereals. Indian foods that would come in this category are all kinds of chaats, fried foods like samosas, vadaa-pav, many sweets with artificial additives, etc. As Indian fast food available is largely specific to the outlet and is not mass-made, it is more difficult to pinpoint the bad guys.
Before we embark on why and how junk-food is harmful, let us look over some little-known factoids about junk-food.
1. Corn dextrin, a common thickener used in junk food, is also the glue on envelopes and postage stamps.
2. Alloxen, a byproduct of bleaching white flour, which is often found in junk food, was found to lead to diabetes in healthy experimental animals by destroying their pancreatic beta cells.
3. Cellulose gum, the agent that gives certain packaged desserts their smooth feel, is also used in rocket fuel to give a slightly gelatinous quality.
4. Young women who eat a junk food diet are at a higher risk for developing Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS), affecting their fertility, also causing hairiness and acne..
5. Mothers who eat junk food while pregnant or breast-feeding have children who are prone to obesity throughout life. The children are also more prone to diabetes, raised cholesterol, and high blood fat.
6. Food manufacturers now spend nearly TWICE as much money on advertising their [breakfast] cereals, as they do on the ingredients that go into them.
7. Although breakfast cereals are not supposed to contain over 15% sugars, research has found that most of them contain thrice as much.
WHY IS JUNK-FOOD ADDICTIVE?
’No-one can eat just one’ is a common advertising slogan used for these foods. And, it is true.
Junk-food is made with complex researched formulae – with the aim of producing just enough taste, so that it lures the brain into enjoying the aroma and the feel in the mouth. It piques the taste –buds, so that while the eater does feel the ‘kick’ of eating, he/she does not feel the satiety needed to stop. That is the reason junk-food is often eaten by the packetfuls. The food industry calls this ‘sensory-specific satiety’. Producing this ensures that their products are eaten in large quantities over and over again, thereby keeping their business booming.
I have watched everyday with some alarm, a group of young boys aged 12 to 15 years from my neighborhood, engage in this addictive behavior. Their first act after descending from their school-bus is to purchase a bottle of cola and pack of chips and finish the lot instead of going home to a cooked meal. Vendors of vaada-pav and samosa do similar brisk business outside schools selling junk-food to hungry children.
Researchers have realized that junk-food produces an addiction, which is similar to that is seen in heroin and cocaine addicts. The eating of these foods releases a chemical (neurotransmitter) called ‘dopamine’ which is associated with producing a feeling of pleasure. The person affected is soon so hooked to this pleasurable feeling, that he/she continues to eat these foods. Soon, the sight, thought and memory of these foods will create a yearning similar to those in addicts, producing a behavior that results in repeatedly buying and consuming these foods. This phenomenon is seen not only in obese individuals, but also in fit persons who have obese parents.
Moreover, tolerance to these foods develops over time, as the dopamine release reduces with continuous consumption of junk-food and the addict needs more of these foods to produce the same feeling of pleasure.
Effects of junk food on health
A recent article in the highly respected journal Nature, claims that excess sugar in our diet contributes to 35 million deaths a year Worldwide.
Junk-food affects health in the following ways.
1.) Lethargy- produces an initial sugar-high, which soon crashes creating lethargy, drowsiness and feeling of low-energy, leading the eater to becoming inactive.
2.) Obesity- Junk-food is the most common cause of obesity due to the fats (oil and butter), processed contents, sugar, refined flour, etc. contained in it.
3.) Poor nutrition- The lack of vital vitamins, proteins and minerals in your diet will make you malnourished, leaving you open to infection due to a weak immune system.
4.) Lifestyle diseases- Higher chances of developing diabetes, high blood-pressure, heart disease at a younger age.
5.) Recent research indicates that children who eat junk-food meals before the age of three are more likely to have lower I.Q.
When someone asks me, “So, what is your poison?” at a party to enquire about my choice of drink, I almost blurt out-“junk food”. Strictly speaking, it is indeed one of the poisons we are all inflicting on ourselves. It is right up there among the addictions, with smoking, drinking alcohol and drugs as one of the most addictive substances that we inflict upon ourselves. For a non-smoker and (almost) teetotaler like me, it is the greatest weakness which I succumb to, time and again.
In spite of knowing my strong family history of hypertension, diabetes, heart disease and obesity, I cannot stop myself from reaching out for that crispy fried savory or enticing dessert in the window of the local cake-shop.
Here’s what I have been doing to beat the habit-.
1.) SHOP SMART-The habit of scrutinizing the contents on the packet is time-consuming, but ultimately rewarding. Stock your kitchen and refrigerator with healthy snacks and drinks. A shopping list is definitely a good idea when shopping in a super-market.
2.) START WITH YOUR HOME AND FAMILY- Healthy eating habits are better cultivated as a family. Freshly cooked food at home is better than the same food served outside. Motivate others in your family to help you kick the habit by avoiding doing anything that would weaken your resolve. Schools that serve unhealthy foods and other parents who give out unhealthy snacks to your children repeatedly, can be gently reminded about healthy eating.
3.) ONE DAY AT A TIME- Often we fall off the wagon due to setting ourselves impossible goals. If we set ourselves attainable aims such as one or two days or weeks, we are more likely to succeed. An occasional eat-out at a junk-food joint may be justified to prevent a binge at a later date.
4.) MOTIVATE YOURSELF- Create a mental picture which repels you when it comes to eating junk-food. Surround yourself with a group of similar minded persons to reduce chances of failing.
5.) WORK AT IT TILL YOU SUCCEED- Even if you fail a few times, do not be disheartened. Remember the story of King Bruce and the spider-Try again
Although the food industry (like the cigarette, ghutka and alcohol industry before them) knows the ill-effects of what it is producing, these firms are all profit-based and are never affected by public concerns. When the media raises a hue and cry about, say, the trans fats or the sodium content of a certain brand of food, the directors of the concerned company go into a huddle and a few weeks later, announce the ‘low-salt’ version or the ‘baked’ version of these foods. These are then touted as the next best thing with a storm of advertising gimmicks and hardly any independent analysis to back them up.
What is particularly galling is that fitness conscious film-stars and sportspersons endorse the junk-foods leading the naïve public to actually continue to eat them. The truth is that, these endorsers perhaps only eat that solitary chip needed to shoot the ad and later would not even touch it with a barge pole. Where is the consciousness and morality expected of public figures in India, who are almost worshipped as Gods and followed blindly by millions? Probably buried under piles of moolah!!!!
So, the moral of the story is- As long as government apathy continues and we are faced with a barrage of junk-food, we need to watch what we eat because we are the custodians of our own health. So let’s think twice before we open that pack of chips and dip into it or even offer it to someone.
Published on Rivokids- a parenting website