Is increasing consumption of junk food causing obesity? Geeta Padmanabhan talks to experts

Here's a report of Harsha's intake of food — sugary cereal for breakfast; buns/bread-and-potatoes for first break, noodles/parathas for the second. After school, it's mixed rice. On his way to tuitions, he buys cheeseburger/samosas, and washes it down with “juice” or cola. Dinner is packaged or ordered food or a roti-dal/rice-vegetable combo. All swallowed at choking speed.

Show this report to a nutritionist. She'll say, “That is a load of junk! No wonder kids are bulking up!” She'll lecture you on the ultra-processed, unhealthy stuff that passes for food. She'll talk of “slim benefits” from sugar-sweetened beverages and chemically-added nutrients. Before she pauses for breath, she'll mention the “O” word, junk food's intimate relationship with it. She'll conclude, “No one is born craving junk food. Few people get fat eating real food.”

What's junk food?

“Any food that gives you more than 200 calories per serving,” says Dr. Dharini, consultant nutritionist. Nutrition expert Dr. Varsha describes it as a popular phrase for food which is low in essential nutrients, high in everything else. It has high levels of carbohydrates, trans/saturated fat and sodium; doesn't have proteins, vitamins, fibre and other nutrients for a healthy diet. It contains ingredients to extend shelf life. “Junk food is any food that has been compromised by the addition of hormones, additives, preservatives, unnatural genetic material or chemical or heat treatments that alter or destroy the natural healthy enzymes, fatty acids, vitamins and minerals,” she says. Dr. J. S. Pai adds, “People differ about which foods are junk. So, go easy on salted snacks, candy, gum, most sweet desserts, fried fast food and carbonated beverages. These give you “empty calories.”

Not fair. To a harried parent escorting kids around for activities, young man/woman crouching all day at the computer table, those rushing around the city on two-wheeled commerce, these words mean little. Junk food is convenient, cheap and time-saving. In a rushed life, “finger” food keeps you alive. How many schools/work-places have canteens providing nutritious food? Homemade sambar saadam-keerai doesn't last all day. What can students buy? You call it junk, I call it lifeline. And this fuss, don't kids digest what they eat? He's fat? Why, it's in the family!

Agrees Dr. Varsha. Junk food is attractive, available everywhere. Who's cooking from scratch? Ready-to-cook food is a gift for travellers. Variety is the spice of life. Also, how do we identify/classify any food as “junk”? “No point in raising anti-junk-food slogans,” she says. “Junk food is here to stay, so eat less of it; eat it once in a while.” She adds a footnote: “Choosing whole foods does more than any drug or doctor to keep you well. Make sure your regular meals are not compromised by food that tantalises the tongue.”

Dr. Pai is equally sympathetic. It's difficult to distinguish foods that need to be restricted, he says. Don't dump all manufactured, processed foods but take a look at the list of ingredients. If the first three are sugar, fat and/or salt, it's probably high in those. Ingredients are listed in order of decreasing amounts. Nutrition information (where available) also lists calories, grams of fat, sodium, cholesterol, fibre and sugar per serving. Follow them to select foods.

Smaller portions

Be courteous, says Dr. Dharini. “Share what you buy. The sizes are larger now. Laddoos have grown from ping-pong to tennis ball size and might soon resemble a football. Puffed rice has more salt. French fries, chips, pakoda, mixture — these may be 50-100 gm but will account for 200 calories. Aerated drinks come in bottomless glasses. Some foods are cheese-topped mountains. “I'm not saying don't eat. Go slow; never replace a meal with any junk food.”

What, keep off cutlets/vada-pav/sev? Cake, pedas, burfi? Hey, they have milk, nuts! Isn't besan protein? Isn't veggie bhajji better than French fries? Next you'll call medu-vada and dosa junk too! The problem is there's little information on their nutritional value, no data bank, no standardisation, no systematic analysis, says Dr. Pai. So have pizza with less cheese and meat; go for grilled lean-meat/fish burgers. Have veggie sandwiches, carrot slices with biscuits. “Many fast foods still contain nutrients but ensure you make them a small part of a healthy diet.” Try coconut water, lemon juice and neer moru, says Dr. Dharini. “Avoid junk food at night. Walk/exercise, increase fresh fruit/veggies in diet, de-stress.”