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home : columns : ask the doctors June 26, 2019

3/22/2019 9:49:00 AM
Frequently eating fast food is unhealthy

Dear Doctor: Unless I'm cooking, my boyfriend eats only junk food and fast food. He says it's no big deal because he's not overweight and doesn't have high cholesterol or high blood pressure. Is he right?

Dear Reader: There's something important missing in your boyfriend's theory regarding his less-than-stellar eating habits, and that's the word "yet." He isn't overweight and he doesn't have high cholesterol or high blood pressure -- yet.

But decades of research point to the hard truth that a diet that regularly includes what we refer to as junk food is associated with a wide range of unhealthful and even dangerous consequences.

A survey of this research published a few years ago found that eating fast food more than twice a week increased the risk of high cholesterol and high blood pressure, which top the list of risk factors for cardiovascular disease, heart attack and stroke. It also paved the way for insulin resistance, diabetes, certain cancers, intestinal issues, an increased incidence of obesity and even depression.

Scientists in France recently looked at how a diet of junk food and fast food (the researchers refer to these as "ultraprocessed foods") may affect a person's life span. The study, published in February in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine, examined eight years of dietary data collected from middle-aged volunteers in an ongoing nutritional study in France. Among the findings was a correlation between early death and regularly eating ultraprocessed foods. New information is also emerging about the negative effect of these foods on the gut microbiome, including reducing the numbers and diversity of beneficial bacteria.

So what are ultraprocessed foods? They're premade and prepackaged foods whose original ingredients have been transformed with flavorings, additives and preservatives. Quite often, ultraprocessed foods achieve their final form via industrial methods like extrusion, molding and milling. The end result is that they're flavor bombs that are high in salt, fat, sugar and calories, and low on fiber and nutrients. Not only are these foods inexpensive and readily available, the balance of salt, sugar, fat and added flavorings has been purposely engineered by food scientists to be irresistible. There's even a term for it -- the "bliss point." Small wonder that the bag of cheese puffs or side of french fries is so easy to crave and so hard to put down.

Research shows that the potential ill effects of this type of eating reach the brain as well. Not only are the connections between the neurons in our brains adversely affected by unhealthy diets, so are several molecules related to learning and memory.

All of which brings us back to our original point. If your boyfriend doesn't shift to healthier eating, it's just a matter of time before his body begins to pay the price. But he doesn't have to go cold turkey. When it comes to sweets and "treat" foods, we generally advise our patients to limit them to 20 percent of their total intake. For those with health issues such as hypertension or diabetes, we advise limiting splurges to 10 percent. Change can be hard. If he approaches healthy eating gradually but steadily, it will be easier to succeed.

Eve Glazier, M.D., MBA, is an internist and associate professor of medicine at UCLA Health. Elizabeth Ko, M.D., is an internist and assistant professor of medicine at UCLA Health. Send your questions to, or write: Ask the Doctors, c/o UCLA Health Sciences Media Relations, 10880 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 1450, Los Angeles, CA, 90024. Owing to the volume of mail, personal replies cannot be provided.

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