When you come home after a long day of work, it can be tempting to order some food or grab takeout and relax. After all, who wants to go through all the effort of cooking and cleaning up when you're tired? Consuming fast food occasionally isn't harmful, but eating too much can result in an unhealthy diet. Unhealthy diets can be harmful and have long-term effects on your health.
An unhealthy diet can lead to health issues such as malnutrition, poor digestion, inflammation, unwanted weight gain and obesity. It can also increase your risk of chronic diseases, such as diabetes and heart disease, and impact your mental health.
What Is a Healthy Diet?
You've probably heard the saying a million times — "eat a balanced diet." But what exactly is a balanced diet? According to the Office of Health Promotion and Disease Prevention, the American dietary guidelines state that most people should consume:
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- Grains, including bread, pasta and rice. Nine to 11 servings per day are recommended.
- Vegetables. Four to five servings each day are recommended.
- Fruit. Three to four servings each day are recommended.
- Protein, including beans, fish, meat and nuts. Two to three servings per day are recommended.
Consumption of all of these constitutes a balanced, healthy diet. Together, these foods give you all of the recommended vitamins and minerals you need each day. This includes vitamins A, C, E and K as well as B-complex vitamins. It also includes quite a few minerals, including calcium, copper, iodine, iron, magnesium, manganese, phosphorus, potassium, selenium and zinc. There is no single food that can give you all of these nutrients.
What Is an Unhealthy Diet?
Now that we know what a balanced diet is, what is an unhealthy diet? There are actually many types of unhealthy diets. Traditionally, fast food products are linked to unhealthy diets, as one in three Americans eats fast food each day. Rich in carbohydrates and high-fat content, frequent consumption of fast food products like fries, fried chicken and pizza can definitely contribute to an unhealthy diet. However, fast foods aren't the only cause of unhealthy diets.
Unhealthy diets can involve eating only one type of food. Recently, an extreme diet called the carnivore diet received attention from the media because the diet involves eating only meat. A person who is consuming only meat products is likely not getting the daily vitamins and minerals he or she needs. This can be easily rectified by adding fruits, vegetables and grains to the diet. A diet involving one single type of food of any kind is likely going to be bad for you in the long run.
Another example of an unhealthy diet is a diet involving excessive consumption of a certain product or nutrient. An example of this is a diet high in sodium. Someone who chooses to eat bacon, cold cuts and other salt-preserved products with frequency will likely be consuming too much sodium. This can result in a variety of health issues, like increased blood pressure and risk of cardiovascular disease. While a little extra salt here and there may not seem like a big deal, 9 out of 10 Americans eat too much sodium. In general, consuming too much of anything can result in an unhealthy diet with negative health benefits.
The Dangers of Unhealthy Eating
The effects of unhealthy eating can sometimes result in obvious physical changes, such as acne, bloating and weight gain. Certain unhealthy diets, like those linked to too much fast food, can result in obesity and related diseases. According to the Centers for Disease Control, having overweight or obesity can increase the risk for diabetes, heart disease, osteoarthritis, stroke and many other conditions. Obvious physical changes don't occur to everyone. However, just because the effects of unhealthy eating aren't obvious doesn't mean they aren't happening.
It's possible to consume an unhealthy diet for a long time and suddenly experience its effects. According to a Civil Eats interview with Hilal Elver, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, fast foods are a leading cause of malnutrition. Malnutrition is one of the biggest dangers of unhealthy eating and can lead to diseases like scurvy. Caused by a deficiency in vitamin C, scurvy can happen to people who prefer carbohydrate-rich diets, avoiding fresh fruit and vegetables. An unhealthy diet won't immediately cause scurvy. You'd have to be vitamin C-deficient for about three months before getting this disease.
Nutrient deficiencies can also have long-term effects. According to the book Modern Nutrition in Health and Disease, written by Department of Nutritional Sciences researchers at Pennsylvania State University, certain vitamins and minerals can reduce your chance of diseases that appear later in life, like osteoporosis. Calcium and vitamin D contribute to bone health and can reduce the risk of osteoporosis as you age.
The effects of your eating habits are more important than you may realize. Every food that you eat has the potential to change your gut microbiome. According to a 2014 study in Nature, trillions of microorganisms reside in your digestive system. The microbes that live in these communities are influenced by the foods you eat every day. Unhealthy diets can cause an imbalance in these microbial communities and allow too many of a certain type to live in your gastrointestinal tract. This can negatively impact digestion, metabolism and cause diseases like inflammatory bowel disease. Because your gut is directly linked to your brain through a cranial nerve, your diet can even impact your mental health.
The effects of eating habits may be more influential than you think. It's important to be aware of both the short-term and long-term effects of unhealthy eating, and to always try to consume a balanced diet.
- Harvard Medical School: Listing of Vitamins
- CDC: Fast Food Consumption Among Adults in the United States, 2013–2016
- Popular Science: Please Do Not Try to Survive on an All-Meat Diet
- American Heart Association: 9 out of 10 Americans Eat Too Much Sodium
- American Heart Association: Get the Scoop on Sodium and Salt
- CDC: Disability and Obesity
- Civil Eats: In the Battle Against Malnutrition, UN Expert Says Junk Food is the Real Culprit
- Baylor University Medical Center Proceedings: Scurvy in 2017 in the USA
- American Journal of Medicine: Scurvy, a Not-So-Ancient Disease
- Public Health Nutrition: Diet, Nutrition and the Prevention of Osteoporosis
- Nature: Diet Rapidly and Reproducibly Alters the Human Gut Microbiome
- Frontiers in Neuroscience: The Vagus Nerve at the Interface of the Microbiota-Gut-Brain Axis
- CAB Direct: Modern nutrition in health and disease