Deadly Bites

We know junk food is bad. So why can’t we stop eating it? Because junk food is smart. You just have to be smarter.
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Updated on Jun 30, 2013 12:31 PM IST
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Hindustan Times | BySaudamini Jain
Few things can match the joy of a perfect fry. A pale gold, which darkens around the edges of a thin finger of potato. It has to be crisp and hot. It should melt in your mouth. It must have the right amount of salt. And if you’re so inclined, it must be fried in tallow. Stock up bags in the freezer, enjoy them as a side to your burger and cola, devour plates with unlimited beer. Fries are comforting. They make you feel like the world is a better place. They make everything seem easier.

Except losing weight. Or staying healthy. Or doing any good to your body, really. About 20 per cent of every fry’s weight is fat, 1.6 per cent of which is the more dangerous trans-fat. Munch on a large serving of fries – about 220 grams – and you’ll already have met (and exceeded) your daily safe limit for trans fats, says a report by Centre for Science and Environment (CSE). "French fries, aerated drinks, potato chips, and aloo bhujia, are the worst kinds of junk food," says Ritika Samaddar, head dietician at Max Healthcare. Junk food is food which is high on empty calories (those that just keep you going without providing any nutrition), refined carbohydrates, salt, sugar and fat. But it is also addictive, and we’re only human. Is there any hope, or even a safe zone? TEST

New York Times investigative reporter Michael Moss, in his recent book, Salt Sugar Fat, blames the combination of these three magic ingredients for making junk food so bad. He says that food companies adjust these ingredients to a sort of "bliss point" (when you eat it, it puts you in a state of bliss) to hook your taste buds and get you coming back for more despite your better judgement. Scientists at these food companies also tweak factors such as crunchiness to make the food feel better inside your mouth. They alter the size and shape of the salt crystals themselves so you pretty much have no defences against the food.

And junk food melts in your mouth so quickly, the brain is fooled into thinking it’s hardly consuming any calories at all. So you keep snacking. It is also geared to trigger passive overeating (gorging on high-fat food because your body is slow to recognise how rich the food is) or auto-eating (eating without thinking or without even being hungry).

Last year, CSE tested 16 major brands of junk foods, and found most of them loaded with alarming levels of trans-fats, salts and sugar.

Sugar triggers diabetes, salt increases your blood pressure, trans-fats clog your arteries, fat makes you, well... fat. And if you’re eating a burger, with all the frills like fries and cola, "the burger is high in fat, the fries are high in salt and the aerated drink is high in sugar, making it the worst way to eat junk food," says Avimuktesh Bhardwaj of CSE.


The Delhi High Court is planning to ban junk food in schools. So we’re clearly not stuffing our faces with garbage. And yet, a National Restaurant Association of India report (2010) says that the fast food industry is growing at 34 to 40 per cent annually. More options are becoming available to more of us more easily. It’s up to us to decide what to eat and how much.

As long as you eat a balanced diet on most days of the week, you’re allowed to binge. In fact, says dietician Samaddar, "you can eat 100-150 calories of junk every day." But people don’t realise how much they’re eating. "You can’t have half a packet of bhujia, one tablespoon is allowed." Even with biscuits, she says, eat only one if it’s a cream biscuit. And if it’s a high-fibre one, eat no more than two!

And don’t be fooled into thinking vegetarian options are better. "Meat gives you protein," says Mumbai-based nutritionist Suman Agarwal, author of Unjunked: Healthy Eating for Weight Loss. "A chicken burger is much better than say, a potato burger. Non-vegetarian hakka noodles will offer more nutrition than the ones with no meat, and even mutton biryani (once in a while) is better than the meatless version." For vegetarians, junk food is loaded with carbs, there are barely any vegetables and no protien. So the food is comparatively unhealther. "Cook at home," Agarwal advises.

Not quite true

Grandma’s junk is always healthy
No. Samosas, kachoris, bread pakodas, packaged bhujia, bhaturas are junk food. They will make you fat and clog your arteries too.

Instant noodles are harmless
No. They’re high in fat and very high in salt. You’re basically eating starch.

All processed food is junk
No. Some of it can be really healthy. Processed food like cornflakes and oats are often fortified with supplements and are good for you.

From HT Brunch, June 30

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