Understanding Junk Food: The Connection Between Processed Foods and Major Health Risks

High in calories and low in nutrients, junk food is unsuitable for our health, yet the taste and convenience of junk food often make eliminating it from our diet difficult. Junk foods are highly processed; high in added sugars, salts, and trans fats; and often lack good nutrients. What do these terms mean?

  • Calories. Units of energy provided by a food item or drink are called calories.
  • Nutrients. Molecules such as proteins, fats, carbohydrates, vitamins, and minerals in food that provide nourishment to the body are called nutrients.
  • Added sugars. Added sugars are any additional sugar or syrup, such as fructose, glucose, corn syrup, etc., added to food or drink while being prepared.
  • Trans fats. Trans fats, also known as trans fatty acids, are produced through the industrial process of hydrogenation that convert liquid oils into solid fats.
  • Processed food. Food items changed from their natural state are called processed foods. Many processed foods contain added preservatives, flavors, salts, sugars, or fats. While many options are not nutritious, some processed foods may be healthy.

The hot dog is one of the most popular street foods in the United States. Considered an American classic, hot dogs were introduced in the United States in the 1860s by European immigrants and later sold with milk rolls and sauerkraut. By the 1890s, hot dogs became a standard food at baseball games and eventually among other recreational activities.

Originally made out of unused pork and beef trimmings (leftover pieces of meat) and flavored with salt and seasonings, the sausage provided an inexpensive and easy-to-cook food option. Food producers later created alternatives that used low-quality or mechanically separated meat, artificial ingredients, preservatives, and additives. Mechanically separating meat involves passing bones with meat residue through a sieve using high pressure to remove small pieces of meat from the bone, creating a paste-like substance used to make sausages. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) allows 20 percent of mechanically separated pork in hot dogs. The quantity of mechanically separated poultry is not determined.

Impact of Unhealthy Diets

A healthy diet includes foods from various food groups, such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, lean protein, dairy, lentils, and nuts. The Center for Science in the Public Interest links an unhealthy diet to the top four causes of death in the United States:

  • Heart disease. A study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology in 2021 concluded that higher consumption of ultra-processed food (processed food high in added sugars, fats, starches, and chemical additives such as artificial flavor and preservatives) was associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease incidence and mortality.
  • Type 2 diabetes. Consuming processed food high in sugars and fats can lead to unhealthy weight gain, which is associated with various health challenges. According to the American Diabetes Association and as covered in Omnigraphics’ Obesity and Overweight Sourcebook, being overweight or obese is one of the top risk factors for developing type 2 diabetes. A body mass index (BMI) of 25.0 to 29.9 is considered overweight, and a BMI of 30.0 and above is considered obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). 
  • Stroke. An article on the American Heart Association’s website revealed a higher stroke risk in 50-year-olds and above living in food swamps. “Food swamps”—a phrase coined by researchers—are areas dominated by junk food restaurants compared to stores or grocery shops that provide fresh food, making it hard to find nutritious foods. 
  • Cancer. Two 2019 studies published in the MDPI journal linked consumption of processed meats with colorectal cancer (the third most common cancer diagnosed in the United States) and stomach cancer. A 2018 study, “Consumption of red and processed meat and breast cancer incidence: A systematic review and meta-analysis of prospective studies” by Maryam S. Farvid et al., associated high consumption of processed meat to increased risk of breast cancer. According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), approximately 18 percent of all cancers in the United States are linked to poor nutrition, excess body weight, physical inactivity, and alcohol consumption. Along with a healthy diet, the ACS also recommends physical activities of moderate or vigorous intensity on a weekly/daily basis and limited consumption of alcoholic beverages.

Researchers have recently uncovered a connection between junk food and depression. A 2019 News-Medical.Net article shared the results of a study conducted by the University of Alabama that revealed a 50 percent increase in teenage depression in 2017 compared to 2005. A group of researchers from Charles E. Schmidt College of Medicine, Florida, also found links between higher junk food consumption and mild depression and anxiety prevalence. The Omnigraphics book Diet Information for Teens provides information on health risks associated with processed foods and offers ways to support a healthy diet in teens.

Junk Food Consumption and Unhealthy Eating Habits

Demanding schedules and lifestyles often cause people to opt for readily available fast food rather than a home-cooked meal. If not careful, these choices can lead to unhealthy eating habits. According to the CDC, 44.9 percent of Americans aged 20 to 39 consume fast food daily.

A 2023 report by Budget Branders reveals:

  • Approximately 80 percent of Americans visit a fast food restaurant once a month.
  • Approximately 50 million Americans consume fast food each day.
  • Individual Americans spend an average of $1,200 a year and collectively spend roughly $200 million on fast food every year.
  • The global market value of the fast food industry is predicted to reach $931.7 billion by 2027.

Strategies for Optimal Health and Moderating Junk Food Consumption

Eating a balanced diet rich in carbohydrates, protein (plant-based or lean meats and seafood), fruits, vegetables, lentils, and nuts promotes a robust immune system and healthy weight. The Diet and Nutrition Sourcebook explains in detail the elements of good nutrition and offers basic dietary guidelines for people of all ages. While it is challenging to eliminate processed foods from your diet completely, you should at least limit their intake. A helpful resource to help plan meals is the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which provides recommendations on what foods to eat. These guidelines, formulated by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, are updated every five years. According to a CDC report, out of the adults surveyed, only 12.3 percent met the fruit intake recommendations and 10 percent met the vegetable intake recommendations outlined by the Dietary Guidelines for Americans in 2019. The 2020–2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends an intake of 1.5–2 cups of fruit and 2–3 cups of vegetables daily for adults.

One of the most practical ways to avoid overeating junk food is to consume your favorite foods in moderation. Two ways to achieve this include following the “80:20” rule (eating healthy food 80 percent of the time and junk food no more than 20 percent of the time) and having healthier snack options in your pantry to avoid impulsive decisions. A nutritionist or a dietitian can help you make a diet plan that works best for you.

Here are some resources to help plan a balanced diet:

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