Glenn Ellis

*With new mandatory nutritional posting laws taking effect on menus at restaurants and fast food take-out places, it is important to understand why junk food can rob you of good health. This is especially true for our young people.

The latest city ordinance in the country, mandating the posting of nutritional posting in food establishments, is one introduced by Philadelphia Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds-Brown. Even though the new law will go a long way to impact the health dangers of obesity, it serves as an opportunity to address the more far reaching health risks inherent the prevalence of junk food in our society.

When a teenager’s diet consists of junk food and fast foods, it has more fat, sugar and salt than nutrients. This improper diet has both short-term and long-term ill effects on the body.

What’s in some of that Junk Food?

  • A can of cola contains 10 teaspoons of sugar.
  • The metal in the can of soda costs more than the ingredients (mainly water with additives, refined sugar and caffeine).
  • A super-sized order of fries contains 610 calories and 29 grams of fat.
  • Artificial ingredients can contain an alarming variety of chemicals. For instance, ‘artificial strawberry flavor’ can contain about 50 chemicals… and no strawberries at all!
  • A king-sized Burger with cheese, large fries and large drink contains 1,800 calories (mostly derived from fat and refined sugar). To ‘burn’ these calories would take nearly 6 hours of cycling (at 20 miles per hour).

The effects of a constant diet comprised mostly of junk food are not to be ignored. Much of the rise in behavior problems, particularly violence and aggression we are seeing in our young people, may have its’ roots in junk food. Increasing rates of anxiety, depression and irritability could be due to a poor diet that lacks the essential chemicals to keep the brain healthy. Changes in diet over the past 50 years appear to be an important factor behind a significant rise in mental ill health.

Several recent reports describe the links between the less severe forms of mental disorder, such as anxiety, and the nation’s increasing reliance on ready meals and processed food, which are heavy in pesticides, additives and harmful trans fats. It is a known fact that eating a diet without fresh fruit and vegetables, fish, poultry, or nuts deprives the brain of the essential vitamins and nutrients needed to regulate it.

A report, ‘Feeding Minds’, produced by the Mental Health Foundation and Sustain, argues that dietary changes could hold the key to combating problems such as depression and ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) in children.

Over the past 60 years, there has been a significant decline in the consumption of fruit and vegetables, with only 13 per cent of men and 15 per cent of women now eating at least five portions each day. The number of pesticides and additives in food has risen sharply over the same period.

The brain relies on a mixture of complex carbohydrates, essential fatty acids (EFAs) – particularly Omega 3 and Omega 6 – vitamins and water to work properly. Highly processed food contains high levels of trans fats – unsaturated oils that have been refined – which can assume the same position in the brain as the EFAs, without delivering the proper nutrients.

Nutritional deficiency could seriously hamper the body’s production of amino acids, which are vital to good psychological health. Neurotransmitters, made from amino acids, are chemicals which transmit nerve impulses between the brain cells.

Serotonin, a key neurotransmitter made by the amino acid tryptophan, helps to regulate feelings of contentment and anxiety, as well as playing a role in regulating depression. Many of us do not have sufficient levels of tryptophan because their intake of nuts, seeds and whole grains is too low.

The Mental Health Foundation says scientific studies have clearly linked attention deficit disorder, depression, Alzheimer’s disease and schizophrenia to junk food and the absence of essential fats, vitamins and minerals in industrialized diets.

Food can have an immediate and lasting effect on mental health and behaviour because of the way it affects the structure and function of the brain. Mental health has been completely neglected by those working on food policy. Rates of depression have been shown to be higher in countries with low intakes of fish, for example. Lack of folic acid, omega-3 fatty acids, selenium and the amino acid tryptophan are thought to play an important role in the illness. Deficiencies of essential fats and antioxidant vitamins are also thought to be a contributory factor in schizophrenia.

Most mental health patients generally have the poorest diets. They are eating lots of convenience foods, snacks, takeaways, chocolate bars, crisps. It’s very common for them to be drinking a liter or two of soda each day. They get lots of sugar but a lot of them are eating only one portion of fruit or vegetable a day, if that.

Researchers at the University of Liverpool examined the toxic effects on nerve cells

in the laboratory of using a combination of four common food additives – aspartame,

Monosodium glutamate (MSG) and the artificial colorings brilliant blue and Quinoline yellow.

The Liverpool team reported that when mouse nerve cells were exposed to MSG and

Brilliant blue or aspartame and quinoline yellow in laboratory conditions, combined

in concentrations that theoretically reflect the compound that enters the bloodstream after a typical children’s snack and drink, the additives stopped the nerve cells growing and interfered with proper signaling systems. The mixtures of the additives had a much more potent effect on nerve cells than each additive on its own.

Exposure to food additives during a child’s development has been associated with behavioral problems such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

Additives are licensed for use one at a time, but the study’s authors believe that examining their effect in combinations gives a more accurate picture of how they are consumed in the modern diet.

Although the use of single food additives is believed to be relatively safe in terms of development of the nervous system, their combined effects are unclear, there are signs that when you mix additives, the effect might be worse.

Brilliant blue is found in sweets, some processed peas, some soft drinks and some confectionery, desserts and ices. Quinoline yellow is found in some sugar products and some pickles. MSG, which should be banned in foods for young children, is found in some pasta with sauce products, a large number of potato chips, processed cheese, and fast food meals. Aspartame is found in diet drinks, some sweets, and desserts and even in some medicines.

Best choices and worst:

Good for the brain:

Vegetables, especially leafy
Seeds and nuts
Whole grains
Organic eggs
Organic farmed or wild fish, especially fatty fish

Bad for the brain:

Deep fried junk foods
Refined processed foods
Tea and coffee


Some additives

Any food that has poor nutritional value is considered unhealthy and may be called a junk food. A food that is high in fat, sodium, and/or sugar is known as a junk food. Junk food is easy to carry, purchase and consume. Generally, a junk food is given a very attractive appearance by adding food additives and colors to enhance flavor, texture, appearance, and increasing long self life.

Remember, junk foods are empty calories. An empty calorie lacks in micro-nutrients such as vitamins, minerals, or amino acids, and fiber but has high energy (calories).

Since junk food is high in fats and sugars, it is responsible for obesity, dental cavities, Type 2 diabetes and heart diseases

Remember, I’m not a doctor, I just sound like one. Take good care of yourself and live the best life possible!

This information is intended as a patient education resource only and should not be used for diagnosing or treating a health problem as it is not a substitute for expert professional care.

Glenn Ellis lectures and is an active media contributor nationally and internationally on health related topics, including health education and health promotion particularly relevant to the African-American community.

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