As a nation, we are hooked on fast food. Between us, we scoff an astonishing 22 million takeaway meals a week, and despite all the health warnings, there are now an estimated 56,000 junk-food outlets in England alone.
Takeaways are part of everyday life, so much so that research suggests that one young person in six munches on burgers, pizza or fried chicken up to twice a day.
That’s a statistic that ought to terrify anyone remotely concerned about the implications of Britain’s eating habits on the waists, health and brains of the next generation.
For our parents and grandparents, a takeaway was an occasional treat. Fast-food outlets were few and far between and most families couldn’t really afford to eat that way. Now they are everywhere, portion sizes are bigger than ever, and competition has driven down the cost.
A man on a mission@ Michael tries to valiently finish the 6,000-calorie burger
Ultra-processed foods such as snacks, desserts or ready-to-eat meals now comprise nearly two-thirds of the average adult diet in Britain.
But how quickly can eating these things start to have a serious – and I mean potentially life-threatening – impact on your health?
I suspect most of us think we can get away with months, or even years, of regular takeaway treats without doing too much damage to ourselves – especially if we exercise regularly and our waistlines aren’t expanding too fast.
If that is what you believe, then brace yourself for a shock. Because the results of my new documentary, The Junk Food Experiment, where six household names agree to binge on junk food for three straight weeks, will surely horrify you as much as they did me.
Our challenge for the six celebrities was this: for one week they would try to eat just burgers and chips; another week they would be eating just fried chicken; and for a third week, only pizza was on the menu.
Part of the reason for doing this experiment is that we wanted to see which of Britain’s three favourite takeaways would lead to the most weight gain and which would prove to be the unhealthiest.
But none of us expected that taking a group of healthy men and women, and asking them to over-indulge for a relatively short period, would affect their health quite as profoundly as it did.
THE TAKEAWARDS LOADED WITH SUGAR, SALT AND ‘BAD FATS
Singer Peter Andre, MP Nadine Dorries, former Olympic champion Tessa Sanderson, Coronation Street actress Hayley Tamaddon, Made In Chelsea star Hugo Taylor and The Chase mastermind and barrister Shaun Wallace all volunteered to put their bodies on the line in the name of science.
First we asked each to undergo a weigh-in. They also had a thorough health check at the start, and then regularly throughout the experiment, to assess the impact of this new diet on their bodies.
And we carried out a detailed nutritional analysis on each of the three takeaway delights to see exactly what was in them.
So what did we find? Well, on average, a portion of burger and chips contained half of an adult’s recommended daily allowance of fat, salt and sugar.
Fried chicken turned out to be relatively low in sugar, but two-thirds of the samples we checked exceeded the recommended daily allowance (RDA) of six grams, or one-and-a-half teaspoons, of salt. And the fat content was truly shocking, easily exceeding the total daily maximum of 70g in a single meal.
Worse still, one of the chicken samples contained high levels of trans fats. They are the worst kind, proven to cause widespread inflammation in your arteries and raise LDL, the ‘bad’ cholesterol.
The recommended level of trans fats is zero.
But for me the biggest surprise was that neither burgers nor chicken came close to pizza in the fat and salt stakes.
The 18in pepperoni that we tested had more than double the 6g daily salt allowance and packed in two-and-a-half times the RDA for fat – equivalent to eating three-quarters of a packet of butter.
The huge 6,000-calorie mega burger – which is more than double the daily recommended allowance
Why do we find junk food so addictive? Well, we are programmed to enjoy fat, salt and sugar, particularly when they are mixed in just the right combinations. They stimulate the pleasure centres of the brain, presumably so that our ancestors, who lived in times where food was far more scarce, would quickly learn to prioritise high-energy foods.
But our ancestors obviously never ate them in the quantities we do today, or in the highly processed form in which they come.
THE RAPID DECLINE OF AN OLYMPIC HERO
I was genuinely shocked and worried at the speed at which some of our celebrity volunteers began to decline as a result of their junk-food binge. The impact on their bodies was far faster and more devastating than anyone, including the experts who were overseeing the experiment, had anticipated.
Although they started to put on weight, much of the damage was invisible to the naked eye, occurring deep inside the body in blood vessels and vital organs. Take Tessa, 62, who represented Great Britain at the highest levels of athletics for many years, winning javelin gold at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles.
With her sporting background and concern for the future health of her six-year-old twins, she lives a pretty healthy lifestyle, with lots of fresh food and regular exercise. But within two weeks of starting on junk food, Tessa was in trouble.
She woke up one morning with a thumping headache, and when we checked her previously healthy blood pressure, it was sky-high – dangerously so, in fact.
Salt is known to increase the risk of high blood pressure, and after less than two weeks of eating junk food, Tessa’s body was responding badly.
My colleague Dr Enam Abood, a Harley Street weight-management specialist who was overseeing the health of the volunteers, warned Tessa she was at risk of a stroke and advised her to stop.
Hayley, who has suffered from irritable bowel syndrome in the past, was also soon in trouble.
Fatty, greasy foods are known to aggravate the symptoms of IBS, causing intense discomfort that severely affects quality of life. Pretty soon, Hayley started to suffer severe stomach pains. She later admitted the pain was much worse than she was letting on.
Another who really struggled was Hugo, who was so stressed by the fast-food regime that he began suffering anxiety attacks.
In fact, none of our volunteers came through the experiment unscathed.
SURELY THE ODD BINGE CAN’T HURT?
Everybody enjoys an occasional blowout. But what is a single fast-food fest going to do to your body?
To find out, as part of The Junk Food Experiment, I gorged on a 6,000-calorie (more than double a man’s daily recommended intake) mega burger. As I did so, Dr Matthew Campbell, a nutrition expert from Leeds University, checked my vital signs, such as body temperature, heart rate, blood pressure and the state of my arteries, using an ultrasound device to measure their elasticity.
Stiff arteries increase the risk of heart attacks and strokes. Halfway through the meal, I was ready to quit and I wondered, for a brief moment, if I might actually die. Not a heroic death and certainly not the way I hope to go. I was astonished at how dreadful it made me feel.
While eating the mega burger, my heart rate soared because my body was working so hard to digest all that food, my core temperature jumped, and my level of blood fats more than doubled.
Ultrasound checks showed that the junk-food binge also temporarily reduced the elasticity of my arteries, putting me at increased risk of a heart attack or stroke. And it’s a real risk because studies suggest that binge-eating can increase the chance of having a heart attack in the hours that follow.
You might argue that, in real life, nobody lives on junk food alone and this experiment has little to do with how most people eat.
But I disagree. What we did is condense the effects of years of poor eating into a few short weeks to highlight what junk food is really doing to our bodies.
According to a recent study by scientists at the Paris-Sorbonne University, for every ten per cent increase in our intake of these foods, the risk of dying prematurely increases by 14 per cent.
And if you are concerned about your waistline, then another recent ground-breaking study might put you off reaching for a supermarket convenience meal.
For this study, American researchers asked 20 healthy-weight adults to come into a laboratory and live for two weeks on processed foods, followed by two weeks of healthy, home-cooked meals made with fresh ingredients.
Both the healthy and the junk-food meals contained roughly the same amounts fat, sugar, salt and carbohydrates.
But to their surprise, the scientists discovered that when their volunteers were eating processed convenience meals, they ate an average of 500 calories more a day compared to when they were eating real food.
As a result, they put on an average of 1.7 lb on the processed diet, while they lost 2.4 lb on the healthy regime.
All that, of course, is bad news.
The truth is, I’ve been investigating the effects of different foods on our bodies and our brains for many years, but the results of my TV experiment, short though it was, genuinely shook me. And I hope it shakes you as well.
- The Junk Food Experiment will be broadcast on Wednesday, February 27 at 9pm on ITV1. Dr Michael Mosley is currently touring the UK, sharing stories from his long TV career. Details of where and when he will be performing are available at michaelmosley.co.uk.
MP Nadine: Just three weeks of bingeing on junk might have damaged my gut forever
Tory MP Nadine Dorries normally sticks to a healthy lifestyle to help her stay sharp. So she was horrified about the impact that eating junk food for three weeks had on her physical and mental health.
‘It was genuinely one of the most difficult things I have ever done,’ says Nadine, left.
‘By day four I was starting to feel quite ill.
‘I developed severe indigestion, which woke me every two hours at night, reducing my ability to concentrate.’
At one point in the documentary, she is shown giving a speech to the Commons on childhood obesity.
‘Normally, I’d just deliver it from my head,’ she tells MPs. ‘But I don’t trust myself to do that tonight. I’ve written it out. For the first time in years, I’ll be reading from a speech.’
Her waistline grew two inches and her previously healthy gut bacteria make-up was destroyed to the point where Nadine, 61, had all the hallmarks of inflammatory bowel disease.
Nadine says: ‘After filming finished, I booked a colonic irrigation – something I’ve never done before. I just felt like my whole system needed cleansing.
‘But what is normally a completely painless procedure was absolute agony because the lining of my bowel was so inflamed – and it had to be stopped.’
Gut expert Professor Julian Marchesi, from Imperial College London, tells her: ‘You’ve done quite a lot of damage to your gut. In the long term, this might have had a serious impact on your overall health.’
One of the most alarming elements, says Nadine, was that during her frequent trips to local takeaways, she would see the same faces day after day gorging on fast foods.
‘Many were the same parents buying evening meals for their young children,’ she says.
‘A lot of people really are eating junk food this regularly.
‘This experiment was awful. But I’m glad I took part because a programme like this can do more to fight childhood obesity than any speech I give to the House of Commons.’
Eat protein before – not after – a workout for strong muscles
Attention gym-goers: ditch that flask of protein shake after a workout. According to new research, it won’t improve your physique. A new US report examined the literature on the impact of protein consumption before, during and after exercise, and found that supplements consumed four to six hours before exercising had the greatest effect.
Researchers also noted that the quantity of protein in the diet was more important for building muscle mass than the timing of consumption.
Scientists from City University in New York concluded that optimum muscle-building requires 0.5g of protein per kilogram of body weight.
Stylish and colourful weighted bracelets to wear from gym to office and add extra resistance to both the workout and everyday tasks. Worn around the wrist or the ankle, these one-size-fits- all wearables burn fat, build muscle and increase strength.
WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE
… between a ligament and a tendon?
Ligaments are a series of tough, elastic tissues that bind bone to bone, and bones to joints. Their main role is to stabilise the bones and joints and keep them from moving too far in one direction. Sprains are commonly used to describe a tear or stretch of the ligament, usually resulting in swelling and bruising. The joint may feel loose or weak and not be able to bear weight. The highest number of ligaments are found in the head and neck, pelvis, wrist and knee.
Tendons are strong, fibrous tissues, constructed from collagen, that connect muscle with bone and protect them from damage. Most tendon injuries result from wear and tear over time, with the most common being tendonitis – the tendons become inflamed or irritated, causing pain when moving the muscle or bone.
What to READ, WATCH AND DO?
Good Reasons For Bad Feelings by Randolph Nesse (£20, Allen Lane)
The professor of psychiatry and psychology reveals stories from his clinical practice to support his theory of mental disorders. Emotions, he argues, are shaped by our genes and serve important biological purposes, with many mental disorders a mismatch between modern environments and ancient human past. Using these fascinating insights, Nesse suggests novel and revolutionary ways to treat mental illness.
Black Nurses: The Women Who Saved The NHS Tuesday, 9pm, BBC4
Just over 70 years ago, thousands of Caribbean and African women travelled from their home countries to help the Government build the NHS.
This heart-wrenching documentary tells their story, revealing the sacrifices they made and the prejudice they faced while caring for thousands of patients.
Freshwalks for the family Early-bird tickets available online from £15; kids go free. Wednesday, 10am, freshwalks.co.uk
Designed to get business people in the North West out of the office, Freshwalks takes ramblers through undiscovered trails before rounding off the day with a hearty pub lunch.
The Disley route is suitable for the whole family and features a trip through the National Trust estate Lyme Park and a 1,300ft climb up the pathways.