Fast food is extremely prevalent in the United States. It is synonymous with the American lifestyle, undeniably as American as apple pie. By definition, fast food is food that can be prepared and served very quickly. Usually, the food is pre-cooked, re-heated and served in a packaged form to take-out. Even though most people know that fast food is unhealthy, it has become part of our busy lifestyles because it is affordable, tasty, and convenient. Every day, 25% of the US population eats some sort of fast food. In 2012, the fast food industry generated total revenues of $195 billion U.S. dollars in more than 300,000 restaurants.
Unfortunately, there are many negative effects associated with consuming a diet filled with fast food. Generally, the foods come in large portion sizes that are high in calories, trans fat, saturated fat, salt, sugar, and additives. Additionally, they often lack vitamins and minerals. Fast food is representative of a dietary pattern that is the complete opposite of what is recommended for a healthy body. The USDA Dietary Guidelines for Americans reports that these poor eating habits create nutritional deficiencies and weight gain. These nutritional deficiencies can put your metabolism under stress and cause fatigue and lack of energy. Fast food does not contain adequate amounts of protein or good carbohydrates, and it doesn’t contain the nutrients your body needs to stay healthy.
Repeatedly eating at McDonald’s or KFC makes it more likely that people will gain weight and become obese. This is because fast food contains many more calories and fat than traditional food. On average, fast food meals contain over 1000 calories, which is about half the recommended daily caloric intake for men and women. Fat levels are also high; hamburgers with multiple beef patties, cheese, bacon and mayonnaise may exceed the 65 milligrams fat limit, which is recommended by the USDA for one day. If you routinely consume more calories than you expend, you will gain weight. High caloric foods contribute to weight gain and obesity and can cause many health problems as well as shorten life spans. In fact, a recent study found that a person’s BMI (body mass index) increases by .03 every time he or she consumes a fast food meal. Obesity is linked with many co-morbidities, such as heart disease, diabetes, some cancers, sleep apnea and asthma. Fast food is wreaking havoc on our children. Our kids are being set up for a lifetime of health problems. Currently, roughly one out of every three children in the U.S. is now overweight or obese. Extra weight affects a person’s overall health, and when obesity begins in childhood, the child is faced with a lifelong struggle with weight and health issues.
Another negative effect of consuming fast food is its effect on heart health. Fast foods contain high amounts of salt and cholesterol; in fact, American sodium intake comes mostly from processed foods and restaurant foods. Increased salt intake is linked with high blood pressure. Excessive dietary sodium can also have a negative effect on renal function, even leading to kidney disease. Too much cholesterol can cause plaque build-up in the arteries, called atherosclerosis. This condition can lead to stroke, heart attack and death. Additionally, many types of fast food contain oxidized fat, which is very dangerous to our blood vessels and can cause problems with circulation. This can cause plaque formation and lead to atherosclerosis as well.
Diabetes can be another consequence of fast food consumption. When you regularly consume too much refined sugar, there can be permanent negative effects on blood sugar levels. Beverages such as milk shakes and soda have high sugar content. According to the USDA, chocolate shakes have 62 grams of sugar, and colas have 44 grams, in 16-oz. servings. Fast food coleslaw, French toast sticks and even cheeseburgers also contain significant amounts of sugar.
Fast food intake is also linked to liver disease. The extra calories and fat take a toll on the liver because the liver is responsible for processing fats in the blood. The excessive fat and calories overload the liver and fat builds up in the liver cells causing liver damage. The liver is capable of regenerating itself; it is a very resilient organ. However, years of eating fast food may cause build up that can’t be reversed, similar to what happens in atherosclerosis.
Interestingly, fast food has also been negatively correlated to performance. High fat intake may lead to difficulties concentrating and poor cognitive function. Research also links fast food to depression. People who regularly eat fast food are 51% more likely to develop signs of depression. Some research also suggests that fast food may be addictive. Further, excessive fast food intake is a risk for Alzheimer’s Disease. The list goes on.
Our bodies were never designed to cope with the high-energy dense foods consumed in the West, which is contributing to the obesity epidemic. There are many healthy “fast” options that we can fit into our busy lifestyles. Supermarkets are filled with pre-made sandwiches and salads, Greek yogurt, cut up vegetables and ready to eat fruit. We only have one life to live, and if we make the right choices, we can reap the benefits of taking care of our body and our minds. Fast food should be eaten in moderation, and should only be a small part of a healthy diet filled with fruits, vegetables, lean protein, and whole grains.