We typically consider “fast food” to mean fare from fast food restaurants, but it’s really more than that. Anything out of a bag or box that’s ready to eat or pre-made is fast food. These foods tend to be junk food — very processed, made with refined flour, added sugars, lots of fat and/or sodium with few micronutrients. So those onion rings in the cafeteria, the flavored sweetened coffee from the mall, and the hot dog at the ballpark are all fast food.
There are some healthy convenience items and the fast food industry has made some nutritional improvements to their menu items, but the bulk of fast food is still junk.1 Larger available sizes of everything from soft drinks to fried side items encourage greater consumption of sugar, fat, and calories, as well as other deleterious compounds* we’ll address below.
Sure, we all know the dangers of gaining weight and raising cholesterol or blood sugar from eating junk. Were you aware that fast food is linked to depression2, inflammation3, shortness of breath and headaches? Cancer risk may even increase.
Though the effects are cumulative over time, even one junk meal can impact your health. According to Registered Dietitian Christy Brissette, “That single fast food meal can narrow your arteries, leading to an increase in blood pressure… Just one serving of junk food can increase inflammation throughout your body.4” Cell turnover in the body takes multiple months, thus a single junk food meal means you’re stuck with negative nutritional values for a long time. And it’s not just the imbalance of nutrients. *There are compounds like acrylamide, tBHQ, trisodium phosphate, polydimethylsiloxane and PFASs lurking in fast food.
The FDA says: “Acrylamide is a chemical that can form in some foods [from naturally present sugars and an amino acid] during high-temperature cooking processes, such as frying, roasting, and baking.” There is concern over risk to human health based on animal studies of high doses that showed cancer development. It’s typically found in potato and grain products such as French fries and cookies.
Even though it’s quickly served, much fast food is preserved for a while before preparation. TBHQ (tertiary butylhydroquinone) causes an altered reaction in the immune system that can trigger allergies.5 Despite the reduction in use of tBHQ this FDA-approved food additive is still present in fatty products such as chips, chicken nuggets, breaded fish and taco shells.
Used ubiquitously in fast and processed food, trisodium phosphate is a common type of sodium phosphate additive that improves the texture of and lengthens the shelf life of products. High consumption of these foods may increase phosphate levels which has been linked to heart conditions, kidney disease, reduced bone density, and even premature death.6
PDMS (polydimethylsiloxane) is a non-biodegradable synthetic silicone oil that has been linked to cancer, impaired fertility, kidney damage and other organ failure.7 When it degrades, PDMS forms the known carcinogenic compound formaldehyde. Used in sealants, coatings, mechanical fluids and Silly Putty, polydimethylsiloxane is found in fried foods and even added to the soda fountain dispenser!
There are PFASs (per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances) in grease-resistant packaging such as wrappers and paperboard that can leach into food. These highly persistent synthetic chemicals have been associated with kidney and testicular cancer, low birth weight, thyroid disease, decreased sperm quality, pregnancy-induced hypertension, and immunotoxicity in children.8
It appears that nearly every part of your body from the integumentary system to the reproductive system can be impacted by certain types of fast food. Bad fast food is bad for you (duh). The good news is that you have the power to change your consumption and improve your overall health trend. Make a nutrition plan for each day to prevent you from grabbing some junk on the go! If you do need to buy a quick snack or meal, reach for a simple pre-made sandwich and fresh fruit.
1) Nutritional Quality at Eight U.S. Fast-Food Chains: 14-Year Trends. MO Hearst et al. American Journal of Preventive Medicine June 2013; 44 (6): 589-594.
2) Fast-food and commercial baked goods consumption and the risk of depression. A Sánchez-Villegas et al. Public Health Nutrition 2012 Mar;15(3):424-32. doi: 10.1017/S1368980011001856. Epub 2011 Aug 11.
3) Fast Food Pattern and Cardiometabolic Disorders: A Review of Current Studies. Z Bahadoran et al. Health Promotion Perspectives. 2015; 5(4): 231–240. Published online 2016 Jan 30. doi: [10.15171/hpp.2015.028]
4) This is Your Body on Fast Food by Christy Brissette. The Washington Post. March 1, 2018. Accessed 12/2/2018 https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/wellness/sneaking-a-little-junk-food-doesnt-mean-all-is-lost/2018/02/26/828b75fa-1b36-11e8-9de1-147dd2df3829_story.html?utm_term=.63575a0d8273
5) Common Additive May Be Why You Have Food Allergies. MSU Today. July 11, 2016. Accessed 12/4/2018. https://msutoday.msu.edu/news/2016/common-additive-may-be-why-you-have-food-allergies/
6) Phosphate Additives in Food—a Health Risk. E Ritz et al. Deutsches ärzteblatt International 2012; 109(4): 49–55. DOI: 10.3238/arztebl.2012.0049
7) “Safety and Toxicity Aspects of Polysiloxanes (Silicones) Applications” by K Mojsiewicz-Pieńkowska in Concise Encyclopedia of High Performance Silicones (2014) eds Tiwari A., Soucek M., editors. (Beverly, MA: Wiley-Scrivener Publishing) 243–251.
8) Fluorinated Compounds in U.S. Fast Food Packaging. LA Schaider et al. Environ. Sci. Technol. Lett., 2017, 4 (3), pp 105–111. DOI: 10.1021/acs.estlett.6b00435 Web publication February 1, 2017