Junk Food and Diabetes

What do potato chips, French fries, soda and donuts have in common? Well, they all taste wonderful, to be sure. They all will help satiate late-night cravings. But the other thing that these food share is that they have little nutritional value—in other words, they’re junk foods. Junk foods have very few of the vitamins, minerals, and fiber we need—and a lot of the sugar, salt, and unhealthy fats that we crave.

Junk foods are everywhere. You see them in vending machines in airports, rest stops, stadiums, and hotels. They’re sold at movie theaters, gas stations, and bookstores. If that weren’t temptation enough, there’s the incessant advertising and marketing of junk foods on television—and as many as 25,000 fast food chains in the United States where you can go to buy a quick junk food meal or snack.

Junk Food and Diabetes

How are junk foods connected to diabetes? The easiest answer is that the consumption of excess sugars and fats in these foods can contribute to weight gain, and excess weight is associated with diabetes. When you carry too much weight, especially around your midsection, your body cells can become resistant to insulin, a hormone that helps the cells to use glucose (sugars) from your foods for energy. Because the cells are unable to use the insulin properly, your pancreas mistakenly interprets this as a need for insulin, and so it pumps out more of the hormone. Eventually the pancreas wears out and is unable to produce enough insulin to help the body use glucose, and you develop diabetes, a condition where the sugar stays in the blood.

Even if you can’t see it, fat on the inside of the body can also raise your chances of developing diabetes. Those who are obese often have a high level of blood fats, which can contribute to the risk. And there is some research that suggests that many people who are obese have an accumulation of fat in the liver, a condition called “fatty liver,” which ups the diabetes risk even further. 

Saturated & Trans Fats

While there are no solid studies proving that sugary foods can directly cause diabetes (beyond contributing to obesity), a growing body of research shows that saturated and trans fats, which are found in abundance in junk foods, are associated with the development of insulin resistance. One study funded by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI) found that those who ate twice weekly at fast-food restaurants, where the menu is filled with fatty options, had a two-fold risk of developing insulin resistance over those who ate at fast food restaurants less than once a week.

Avoiding Junk Food

If you have diabetes already, you may be wondering why it’s so important to avoid the sugars and fats found in junk foods. The most obvious reason is because keeping your weight down—and avoiding sugary foods—will help you to control your blood sugar. An additional reason is that if you have diabetes, you already have a higher than average risk of having a heart attack or stroke, and unhealthy fats will only increase those chances.

It’s much harder to break a junk food habit, though, than many other bad habits. You don’t have to smoke or drink alcohol to live, for example, but you do have to eat. And even if you avoid the foods that are obviously laden with sugars and fats—such as cakes and fried dishes—fats and sugars can lurk in foods where you least expect to see them. Tortilla chips, Chinese noodles, muffins, croissants, and that cream you splash in your coffee all contain harmful fats. And sugar shows up in pizza, hot dogs, boxed and canned foods like rice, soups, and crackers, as well as in flavored yogurt and condiments like salad dressings, mayonnaise, and ketchup. 

Many people with diabetes find that the best way to control the intake of harmful fats and sugars is to become an educated consumer. This includes learning how to read labels to spot the addition of fats and sugars and, whenever possible, cooking at home in order to control ingredients. If you enjoy eating out, it’s best to avoid fast food restaurants. If you do occasionally indulge, the American Diabetes Association has these tips for making your fast food dining healthier:

  • Don’t fall into the trap of ordering a deluxe or super-sized food option because it’s a good money value. It may save you money, but it doesn’t save on calories, sugar, or fat consumption.
  • Avoid fried foods, and opt instead for grilled or broiled. Choose lean meats such as turkey or chicken breast.
  • Watch the condiments. Mustard is healthier than mayonnaise, ketchup, or rich sauces.
  • In the morning, stick with buns, bread, or English muffins, which are lower in calories and fat than croissants or biscuits.
  • Order your burger without cheese, which has additional calories and fat.
  • Salad bars are good, but limit the high fat toppings such as dressings, bacon, cheese, and croutons. Load up on carrots, peppers, onions, broccoli, cauliflower, and celery instead.
  • If eating pizza, choose thin crust and veggie toppings.
  • In Mexican fast food restaurants, choose bean burritos, soft tacos, fajitas, and other items that are not fried and select chicken over beef. Go for just a little cheese, sour cream, and guacamole; instead pile on the lettuce, tomatoes, and salsa.
  • When eating Chinese, avoid fried options and sauces. Choose chicken dishes with lots of vegetables.