picture of assorted junk food on a table

Junk food’s negative impact on our bodies, in the short and long term, may change how you choose to view treating yourself with greasy fast food and a sugary dessert. At least one study has proven even a single junk food meal high in saturated fat can damage artery health. When we add this to the fact that heart disease kills about 610,000 people in the United States every year (more than any other disease), it starts to feel like maybe we should celebrate two National Eating Healthy Days instead of a National Junk Food Day. Let’s take a look at some ways that eating junk food (even in moderation) takes a toll on our bodies and find out some healthy alternatives that’ll help satisfy the cravings.

Short-Term Effects of Junk Food

When we eat foods loaded with saturated fats, sodium, simple carbs, and added sugar, there’s an immediate and noticeable physiological effect. Here are some short term problems to be aware of that may help you make healthy food choices that will keep you going instead of bringing you down.

Brain Fog: Recently, more and more people claim that the food we eat may be the reason we feel groggy and forgetful on occasion. And there’s evidence to support it. When we eat foods that require a longer time to digest, the body sends more blood to the stomach and intestines to help it along—leaving your brain with less blood to work with and you feeling less alert. Additionally, foods high in sugar can knock gut bacteria out of balance, which can lead to full-body inflammation, including brain inflammation that can cause confusion and forgetfulness.

Poor Digestion: Most of the foods we categorize as junk are seriously lacking in fiber—an essential compound for maintaining healthy digestion. Fiber is basically the part of food the body doesn’t absorb, and we need it to keep things moving in our digestion. Without plenty of fiber, we end up constipated and uncomfortable.

Bloating and Thirst: Most of the processed or fast foods we call junk are loaded with entirely too much salt. That much sodium triggers thirst and bloating because the body retains water and craves more of it to dilute the extra salt just consumed.

Long-Term Effects of Junk Food

In addition to making you feel cruddy in the short term, regular consumption of junk food can cause some serious long term health problems as well.

Heart Disease: Unfortunately, all that extra salt we mentioned does more than make you bloated and thirsty. It also raises blood pressure, which is bad news when it comes to heart health. In fact, high blood pressure is the number one cause of heart disease, accounting for the majority of all strokes and heart attacks. And it isn’t just salt that’s to blame. You should also watch your fat intake. While there has recently been some debate over the health risks of consuming saturated fats, the American Heart Association still recommends limiting your intake in order to reduce your risk of developing heart disease.

Depression: People who consume a diet high in refined sugar and processed foods are 25 to 35 percent more likely to develop depression than those whose diet consists of mostly fruits, vegetables, seafood, and whole grains. This statistic isn’t surprising when you consider that 95 percent of serotonin, which regulates mood, is produced in the gut and is greatly influenced by the balance of bacteria there. Again, eating foods with lots of added sugar or simple carbs disrupts that balance.

Cancer: As of 2015, the World Health Organization classified processed meat as a carcinogen and red meat as probably a carcinogen. In addition, consuming other forms of high-calorie junk food can lead to obesity, which increases your chance of developing several forms of cancer, including breast cancer, pancreas cancer, and kidney cancer.

Delicious Alternatives to Junk Food

While the evidence is stacked pretty high against any amount of junk food being healthy, there are loads of alternatives to get your fix while keeping your body in good working order. Here are a few.

  • Roasted chickpeas are a great alternative to french fries. You still get all that crispy, starchy goodness with added benefit of extra fiber.
  • Baked kale chips are a nutrient-dense, low-carb alternative to potato or corn chips.
  • This black bean burger is a healthy way to satisfy your hamburger craving. Use whole or sprouted grain bread crumbs and buns for maximum healthfulness.
  • Even chocolate donuts can be made a little healthier with a few additions and substitutions.

Try celebrating National Junk Food Day with some of these healthy options, or think of some on your own. Get creative and reap the feel-good benefits!

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