The Fault in our Fries: how fast food affects our health

Whether it is a weekend-only treat or just a quick alternative after a long day of work, there is no denying that fast food is Britain’s best friend. Nowadays, more and more people in the UK are ditching the veggies for takeaway meals, spending a whopping £1320 a year on these choices.

And we can’t really blame them. With the constant increase in the number of fast food joints over the years, it is hard to resist the temptation to indulge in burgers and fries or a takeaway meal.

A survey conducted by vouchercodes.co.uk revealed Chinese, Indian and Fish and Chips are Britain’s top choices, each scoring over 20% of votes (Data visualisation created by Andreea Dulgheru)

“It’s a nice change and it doesn’t require an effort. Plus, I don’t have to clean afterwards.” says Suad Odowa, one of the many students who is a follower of the fast food trend. “I don’t eat it very often though, maybe once every two weeks,” she adds.

As to the frequency people consume fast food, a recent poll on Twitter shows that most of the voters choose to eat fast food meals a few times a month.

“I guess it’s because there’s a lot of choice, because it’s convenient and maybe people are time poor, and maybe the price is right in the sense that perhaps fast food is relatively cheap. Though, of course, nutritionists would certainly argue that with the same price, it’s possible to create meals that are much more nutritionally desirable. And I can only speculate that maybe people haven’t acquired the skills to cook and create interesting meals, perhaps in a way that previous generations did,” says James Gardner, GP in Preston.

“People will also often talk about the social benefits of cooking and interacting with people as food is being made. There’s surely a social impact in having fast foods and eating with people in fast food restaurants and so on, but I don’t think that can fairly equate to the social impact of buying fresh food and cooking it with friends and eating it with friends,” he adds.

Deprived areas seem to be the ones who are the most affected by the increasing popularity of fast food restaurants, as the University of Cambridge revealed a 43% increase in the total number of fast food and takeaway restaurants in the last 18 years, significantly higher than in the less deprived areas, which scored a 30% rise.

Data collected by Treated.com revealed Derby is the crowned winner in this ‘competition’ with 0.189 stores per 1000 inhabitants, followed up by Bristol, who managed to score 0.188 stores per 1000 people.

But what happens when the occasional fast-food treat turns into an everyday ordeal? Many people are starting to find that on their own.

Research shows that nearly 65% of British people are overweight or obese. The study, conducted by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) revealed that 57% of women and 67% of men are in the overweight or obese ranges, with Body Mass Indexes (BMI) over 25.

Scientists believe that the excessive consumption of fast food and takeaway meals on a long-term basis are very likely to affect a person’s health in the long run, significantly increasing the risks of developing various illnesses.

“Whilst fast food and takeaways can be cheap and convenient, they are not always very healthy and some can push you over your maximum daily intake of salt and fat which can lead to a variety of health problems,” says Anne Betty, Registered Nutritionist at Ab Food Nutrition.

“Eating out often is linked to a higher risk of becoming overweight or obese and this in turn increases risk of diseases such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes. The risk of certain cancers such as bowel and stomach in addition to high blood pressure and tooth decay can all be diet related.”

Among the diseases that can be triggered by a diet rich in fast food and takeaway meals, diabetes poses the biggest threat to consumers as the lack of fibres, together with the high quantity of salt and fat disrupts the body’s ability to process insulin, making the cells resistant to the hormone.

The data visualisation shows the number of cases of type 2 diabetes registered in England in 2014–2015 (Data visualisation created by Andreea Dulgheru, Data source: http://www.hscic.gov.uk)

Heart diseases are also possible outcomes of poor nutrition caused by excessive fast food consumption. The high level of salt in the products triggers a spike in blood pressure, making people more prone to congestive heart failure. The risk of developing a heart condition is further increased by the amount of saturated fats takeaway and fast food meals contain, which causes blockages in the arteries.

According to studies conducted by British Heart Foundation, 27% of deaths all over the United Kingdom are a result of cardiovascular diseases, the equivalent of approximately 155.000 each year.

“Fast food also has a reputation for having a low fibre content, so therefore not supporting a 5-a-day diet, which would be preventative of bowel cancer, in particular by improving transit times through the bowels,” says Gardner.

So is there still a light at the end of the tunnel for British people? The answer depends on how dedicated they are to changing their lifestyle. With a drastic transition of diet from fast food calorie bombs to healthier meals that include more fruits and vegetables and regular exercise, doctors and nutritionists claim people can significantly reduce the risk of developing life-threatening diseases and lead healthier lives.

“Surely we’ve all had fast foods in our time, there is a time and a place for all of these things and one might say that the old advice about ‘Everything in moderation’ is the way to go forward,” says Gardner. He claims the main issue is that people have excessive amounts of fast food, thus restricting their diet and not getting the benefit of all the vitamins and nutrients gained from a healthier diet.

“Whilst we should consume high-energy food and sugary drinks less often and in small amounts, equipped with some tips and knowledge though, it is possible to make healthier choices when ordering your favourite takeaway,” says Anne Betty.

If going out for a meal, Betty recommends substituting some foods for healthier alternatives, such as opting for steamed dishes as opposed to fried foods, switching creamy curries to tomato based dishes such as tandoori and madras and going for diet/sugar free fizzy drinks instead of regular ones.

How often do you eat fast food? Leave a comment below or on Facebook or Twitter with your response and opinion about this subject.