The next time you scoop up a handful fast-food fries or tuck into a hamburger, you could be setting up your immune system for a fall.
Researchers at the University of Bonn in Germany say eating fast food may cause the immune system to shift into overdrive, which can lead to serious health problems.
For example, the study found mice who ate a “Western diet” — high in sugar and fat, low in fiber – experienced an inflammatory response similar to what would be expected after being injected with dangerous bacteria.
An overactive immune system can lead to health complications over the long run, including atherosclerosis, a thickening and hardening of the walls of the arteries that contributes to stroke and heart attack, the researchers said.
The inflammatory response also has been linked to other health conditions, including diabetes.
The study results do not surprise Jen Bruning, a Chicago-based registered dietitian nutritionist and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
“The body is designed to have a strong response to sudden changes in situation, including sudden shifts in diet,” she says.
The junk food crisis
Of course, scientists and health officials long have been aware of the potential dangers of eating too much fast food and processed foods. Munching on high-fat, sugary foods raises the risk of obesity and associated health problems, such as heart disease and diabetes.
The problem of junk food consumption is serious and begins early in life. A 2015 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that children and adolescents consume an average of about 12 percent of their daily calories from meals in fast-food restaurants.
As these kids grow into adulthood, they may struggle to change bad habits accumulated over a lifetime. To make a successful shift for the better, it helps if you avoid an “all or nothing” mentality, Bruning says.
“If you think of healthy eating as something that you have to do all the time — or else you’ve failed –then let me tell you, you’re going to fail,” she says.
She says it’s OK to occasionally indulge in cravings or to choose simple convenience over health from time to time.
“It’s when someone’s diet misses out on important nutrients for days in a row that we can get into trouble,” she says.
Tips for eating more healthfully
Bruning also offers some tips for reducing junk foods in your diet. They include:
Expand your palate. Bruning encourages you to try new, more healthful foods. Chances are good you will find things you like. Visit a farmer’s market and let your imagination run wild.
“Think about picking up a fruit or veg you’ve never had before,” she says. “Chat with the vendor about how to prepare the food.” She also suggests asking for a sample before buying.
Make a list of healthful choices. Know your cravings, then look for more healthful options that mimic those foods.
Maybe your weakness is crunchy or salty foods, such as chips. Or perhaps you can’t resist treats that are creamy and sweet, like ice cream.
“Have alternatives at the ready so you can satisfy that devil on your shoulder with an angelic choice,” Bruning says.
Plan your meals and snacks ahead of time. Choose healthful snacks rather than simply reaching for the most convenient, least healthful options.
“Having something to nibble on can offset a big junk-food binge, and help you enjoy your next meal by keeping you from being ravenous and overeating when meal time does roll around,” Bruning says.
In addition, plan your meals in advance when you can. “Knowing your next meal is waiting for you at home or in the fridge means you can drive on past the drive-thru with confidence,” Bruning says.