What really makes junk food bad for us? Here’s what the science says

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Fun, cheap and tasty, but perhaps not the healthiest option

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CUT down on fatty food. No, sugar. Aim for a Mediterranean diet. And remember to eat more plants…

The variability of healthy eating advice has become a cliché in itself. Yet despite all the contradictions, there is one thing that many agree on: we should avoid junk food. Until recently though, no one could give you a decent reason why. Gastronomic snobbery aside, science lacked an agreed definition of what junk food actually is, and that has made it difficult to know whether we should be avoiding it and, if so, why.

It has long been assumed that processed junk foods are bad because they tend to contain too much fat, salt and sugar. Recent studies, though, suggest that other mechanisms could be at work to make these foods harmful to our health. Getting to grips with what these are could help us not only make healthier choices, but also persuade the food industry to come up with healthier ways of giving us what we like to eat.

One thing’s for sure: we certainly do like it. Factory-made food makes up between 50 and 60 per cent of the average person’s calorie intake in the UK, and around 60 per cent in the US. But while junk food has a bad name among many food lovers, dietary health research and the public health advice that stems from it have so far concentrated either on individual food groups, like meat and dairy products, or the relative amounts of the three macronutrients …

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