Defeat Diabetes

The scary side of convenience: The reality of junk food’s health impact

3 mins read

  • Higher ultra-processed food (UPFs) intake linked to a 50% increased risk of heart disease and a 12% greater risk of type 2 diabetes.
  • Almost half of the food that Australian’s consume are ultra-processed foods (UPFs).
  • Experts are calling for warning food labels, similar to those found on cigarettes.

We've all heard it before: junk food is bad for us. But just how bad?

A recent study involving nearly 10 million people found strong evidence linking ultra-processed foods (UPFs) – think instant noodles, chips, fast food, and ready-made meals – to a whopping 32 different health problems, including physical and mental issues and even early death.

What exactly are ultra-processed foods? 

The easiest way to identify an UPF is to go to the middle of the supermarket; it’s almost anything that comes in packaging with a long list of ingredients you probably have never heard of. In other words, they’re not real food. UPFs are heavily processed and are often loaded with additives, sugar, fat and salt. They're convenient but lacking in essential nutrients, which can seriously harm our health.

In countries like Australia and the US, UPFs have grown in popularity to the point where they are now estimated to be 42% to 58% of our total energy intake. That's a lot of processed junk! 

What did the study involve?

The study was a systematic umbrella review of meta-analyses, which means it was a review of existing research. 

Researchers gathered the results of 45 studies published between 2009 and June 2023 and analysed the associations between UPFs and poor health outcomes.

What did the study find?

Prepare yourself, the list is long and scary. From cancer to heart disease, mental health disorders to diabetes, the risks associated with consuming UPFs are alarming. And while this research can't prove UPFs are the cause of these health outcomes, the evidence linking junk food to these health problems is hard to ignore:

There was "convincing evidence" for:

  • About a 50% increased risk of heart disease-related death

  • A 48 to 53% higher risk of anxiety and common mental disorders

  • A 12% greater risk of type 2 diabetes 

There was also what researchers called “highly suggestive evidence” for increased risk of depression and sleep problems. 

Ultra-processed foods and it's impact on health

What can be done?

The experts are calling for action. They want United Nations agencies to take a page out of the anti-smoking playbook and take steps to discourage junk food. This could include warning labels on packaging, restrictions on advertising, and bans on selling junk food near schools.

In Australia, some voluntary programs are already in place to encourage companies to reduce their foods' salt, sugar, and fat content. However, with nutritional targets including “reduction of sugar in breakfast cereals to 22 grams per 100 grams”, which equates to around five teaspoons of sugar (and almost the total daily limit recommended by the WHO), we’re dubious as to how effective such voluntary programs will have.

Many experts, including Defeat Diabetes founder Dr Peter Brukner OAM, and experts Dr Paul Mason and Dr James Muecke have voiced their concerns at the Australian Parliamentary Inquiry into Diabetes. All agree that we need stronger, mandatory regulations to truly tackle this problem.

One approach that has shown promise is putting warning labels on food packaging, similar to what we see on cigarette packets. This informs consumers about the health risks associated with certain foods and puts pressure on companies to improve their products.

But it's not just about regulation – we also need to make healthy food more accessible. That means supporting family farmers and independent businesses that produce fresh, minimally processed foods. By providing easier access to nutritious options, we can help people make healthier choices for themselves and their families.

The principles of the Defeat Diabetes Low Carb Program are based in JERF: just eat real food. Our approach is to cut out the junk, sugar, grains and seed oils and instead nourish your body with good quality protein fats like butter, coconut oil and avocado, and enjoy low carb fruits and veggies like raspberries, strawberries and above ground green vegetables

The evidence is clear: junk food is wreaking havoc on our health. But there is still time to turn things around. Taking decisive action now can create a healthier future for future generations. So, let's say goodbye to junk food and hello to a happier, healthier lifestyle with real food, the way humans were meant to eat.

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