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.