If “you are what you eat,” many of us are junk. Most people know that junk food is low in nutritional value but high in calories. That knowledge does not always influence eating habits. Junk food is so darn tasty that people of all ages succumb to the lure of potato chips and fast food.
Many packaged snacks and most fast-food meals are high in saturated fats, sugars, and salt. Most junk food is low in fiber and fails to deliver the important nutrients that are found in fruits and vegetables. While fast food is often unhealthy for those reasons, its appeal to the palate promotes overeating. While the evidence is in conflict, junk food consumption might be among the causes of rising levels of obesity in the American population.
Junk food is bad for most people, but it can be particularly harmful to older people. Recent studies have refocused attention on the importance of minimizing the intake of nonnutritive food, particularly as people age.
Ultra-processed foods are made from substances extracted from foods (such as fats and starches) plus additives (such as stabilizers and artificial colors and flavors). Most ready-to-eat meals are ultra-processed, including most fast food, frozen meals, cold cuts, and salty snacks.
Whole foods that have not been processed retain their vitamins and nutrients. Some forms of processing (such as juicing a fruit or preparing vegetables for canning) might not significantly impair its nutritional value. Ultra-processing, on the other hand, often removes or destroys important vitamins and other nutrients.
A recent study associated the high consumption of ultra-processed foods in the United States with an increased risk of colorectal cancer. Other studies associate the higher consumption of ultra-processed food with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease.
Ultra-processed foods contribute more than half of the total daily calories consumed by adult Americans. Their low cost and convenience contribute to their popularity, but some experts suggest that manufacturers deliberately add sugar, fat, caffeine, and other addictive ingredients to junk food as a strategy to promote the increased consumption of their products.
The Impact of Ultra-processed Foods on Older Americans
While researchers have focused attention on the health consequences of fast food on children who are building unhealthy eating habits, a recent review of studies asked the question: “Is there an association between processed/ultra-processed foods and arterial hypertension in adults and older people?” The review defined “adults” as people between the ages of 20 and 59 and “older people” as those who were 60 or older.
The scholars who conducted the review noted that most scientific literature has addressed the consumption of ultra-processed foods by children and adolescents. They nevertheless found a correlation between ultra-processed food consumption by adults and older people and the development of arterial hypertension, a major risk factor for cardiovascular disease. They also suggested the need for targeted studies of the eating habits of older people while noting that such studies are complicated, given the prevalence of adverse health conditions that correlate with aging without regard to diet.
A study that targeted seniors was conducted in Spain last year. The studied cohort included men and women between the ages of 55 and 75. Not surprisingly, the study found that seniors who consumed larger amounts of ultra-processed foods had greater body weight, waist circumference, and body mass index than seniors whose diet included fewer ultra-processed foods.
In addition, the study found that greater consumption of ultra-processed foods correlated with elevated blood pressure and higher cholesterol levels. Those factors are associated with a higher risk of cardiovascular disease. The study also found an association with higher glucose and hemoglobin levels, risk factors for the development of diabetes. The authors noted that diets in Spain are typically lower in ultra-processed foods than diets in the United States, which might explain why obesity rates are higher in the US than in Spain.
An earlier study in Spain found a correlation between the consumption of ultra-processed food and frailty in people who are 60 or older. It may be that older people who maintain a healthy diet also exercise and have a healthy lifestyle. While diet is only one component of healthy living as we age, the study’s authors suggest that avoiding ultra-processed food is an important factor in avoiding frailty and disability.
Overcoming Junk Food Addiction
Breaking habits built over the course of a lifetime is never easy. At the same time, it is never too late to change an unhealthy lifestyle. Breaking a junk food habit begins with awareness of which foods have nutritive value and which offer only the satisfaction of consuming fats and sugars.
Learning to control cravings, to plan meals, and to buy foods that are both delicious and healthy are steps in the process of overcoming an addiction to fast food and ultra-processed snacks. When friends insist on meeting at a fast food restaurant, choosing one of the healthier menu items can also help seniors improve their diet.