Michael Mosley: Why do you think they call it junk? © Joe Waldron

Michael Mosley: Why do you think they call it junk food?

Processed foods and takeaways could be to blame for the UK’s obesity epidemic.

We know that takeaways and highly processed foods are bad for us, but just how bad? I’ve recently been involved in a TV programme, The Junk Food Experiment, in which we asked six British celebs to live on a junk food diet for three weeks.

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What was so disturbing was just how quickly our guinea pigs became sick, to the point where the series doctor told three of the celebs – Olympic athlete Tess Sanderson, Made In Chelsea star Hugo Taylor and actress Hayley Tammadon – that they had to pull out.

In Tessa’s case, it was because her blood pressure had risen so high there were fears she would have a stroke. Hayley developed severe symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome and was in such pain she couldn’t continue, while Hugo became so anxious on the diet he also had to stop.

Although this documentary involved only a small number of subjects, it did point to a wider truth: junk food has a far more insidious effect on us than most people imagine.

The most obvious link is obesity. We Brits, lovers of fast food, are the fattest people in Europe. We put away around 22 million takeaway meals a week, and the number of junk food outlets on our high streets continues to soar – up a third since 2010 to more than 52,000 – while processed foods such as snacks, desserts or ready-to-eat meals now comprise more than half the diet of the average adult in Britain.

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Yet a recent study by scientists at the Paris-Sorbonne University found that for every 10 per cent increase in our intake of these foods, the risk of dying prematurely increased by 14 per cent.

In another US study, 20 adults of healthy weight were asked to come into a lab and live for two weeks on processed foods, followed by two weeks of healthy, home-cooked meals. Although the different meals contained roughly the same amounts of fat, sugar, salt and carbs, volunteers ate, on average, 500 more calories a day when eating processed foods than when eating real food. As a result, they put on an average of 0.77kg (1.7lbs) on the processed diet, while they lost 1.08kg (2.4lbs) on the healthy regime.

Piling on the bad news, in another recent report a team from California’s Loma Linda University reviewed data from over 240,000 telephone surveys, and found that consumption of fried takeaway foods and those containing lots of sugar was strongly linked with depression, even when they took age, education and income into account.

In the light of all this new research, surely it’s time that governments stepped in to curb the excesses of Big Food in the same way we have legislated against tobacco.


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