In a pinch, when you’re starving, what type of food are you reaching for? An apple? A carrot? Organic free-range chicken? Probably not. It’s likely the junkiest of junk food, stuff that’s not even wholly food but partially a bunch of chemical compounds you’ve never heard of. Look at the back of a bag of chips, and you’ll find more ingredients than a philharmonic has members.
Sparingly, junk food is good for the soul, but watch out: A recent study found that ultra-processed foods can lead to an increased risk of cancer, heart disease, and premature death.
Men are particularly at risk. The British Medical Journal found that men with diets high in ultra-processed foods face a 29 percent higher risk of developing colorectal cancer. There are some other key factors at play. The men in the study who developed colorectal cancer were also likely smokers and registered lower levels of physical activity, with diets that were deficient in whole grains and essential nutrients like fiber, calcium, and vitamin D. Their diets were also high in fats and added sugars, both of which are common in ultra-processed foods.
It’s important to note the distinction between ultra-processed foods and processed foods. Foods processed in some way are all around us—from olive oil to Greek yogurt—but the type of eats that were the focus of this study are foods where the nutrition label looks like a science experiment. Foods like potato chips, candy, or soda, which tend to be packed with mounds of salt or sugar.
Many people, especially poor people of color, don’t have access to whole or less processed foods due to food deserts. It’s not lost on anyone that this isn’t an accident or a coincidence.
At the moment, there’s a lot of discussion about diet culture and how it can cause undue harm in a myriad of ways, such as normalizing eating disorders and promoting unhealthy ideas about body image that perpetuate hostility towards fat people. As a culture, our relationship with food and our bodies needs to evolve.
One of the best joys in life is good food with good company. It’s not worth the trouble to pick apart whatever you’re eating at a moment’s notice. Hyper-restrictive diets are for people preparing for roles in Marvel movies, not normal folks. Sure, eat what you want—but be smart about it. Be mindful of what nutrients your body needs to be at its best. You only get so many trips around the sun, my dude.