Estd. 2006
A Curious Case of Junk Foods- The Story of ‘YOU’, ‘ME’ and ‘OUR TIME’

Ningning Newmai

The term "Junk food” refers to  a wide range of highly processed foods consisting  of high- calories , sugar, salt and fat content that is of little to no nutritional value. As the name suggests, junk foods are nothing but 'junk' or unhealthy foods. However, the issue is much more serious than this. Junk food has been linked with a number of health hazards. 

With growing globalization, the food culture of India is also changing. With India's own struggle with deep fried foods, it is now complexed with the menace of growing fast food culture. While junk foods and fast foods are not the same, the latter often comes in the form of junk food.

High consumption of fast food has been reported in school going children and this is quite substantial in college and university students. This is significantly causing the rise of non-communicable diseases (NCDs).

Food can be categorized as healthy or junk depending on their ingredients and preparation methods. It may also mean different things to different people based on their lifestyle and background. Principally, they are made of white flour, refined white sugar or syrup and cheap quality oil etc .

Popular junk food examples are-fried fast foods, salty/sweet snacks, pastas, noodles, white bread, pastries, confectionaries, ice creams, malted and sweetened carbonated beverages, popcorn, etc. Even the so called ‘healthy’ packaged fruit juices, loaded with sugar fall under this category.

In Nagaland, people often go to favorite snack which is famous among the youth, is a ready to eat pre-fried noodles. This is either eaten on its own or mixed with other varieties of crisps.  Priced at just Rs 5, the list of possible junk food combinations here is endless.

The main target of most junk food companies are the youths i.e generally, school going and college going students. For many students in India, the day starts with a bowl of "Instant Noodles" which is followed by spending 8-9 hours daily in their schools/colleges/institutions. During lunch break, many students depend on canteen food and very few on homemade “Lunchbox”. Due to it being cheap, tasty and readily available, hungry students without hesitation often help them to the vast option of junk food available at canteen.

Most of "canteen foods" across the country are categorized by health experts as unhealthy.

This is a key issue  for both canteen and non-canteen users, as it not only contributes to their total food intake and nutrition, but also sets an impact on their  overall food preferences ,attitude and long term food habits . While most of these don’t have immediate effect, in the long run the internal body parts, depending on a person's resilience are susceptible to severe, irreparable damage.

*Rendezvous of Junk Food with ‘Children’ & ‘Youth’

*Obesity and other related problems:  With more than 14.4 million obese children, India has the second highest number of children with childhood obesity in the world. By 2025 this number is expected to reach 17 million.

Junk food is the easiest way to gain unhealthy weight. High calories, transfats, and sugar are known to send mixed signals to the brain, making it difficult to process if we are hungry or have eaten enough. This leads to overeating, which in turn leads to high blood pressure, higher risk of obesity and chronic diseases like cardiovascular disease, gastrointestinal problems, diabetes, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease and even cancer.

*Diabetes: Junk foods contain high levels of carbohydrate that instantly spike our blood sugar levels. This result in lethargy, inactiveness and sleepiness or worse, clogs your arteries and increase the risk of a heart attack.

By frequent consumption of   excess fat, carbohydrates, and processed sugar, even those with normal weight are likely to suffer from type 2 diabetes which has twice the risk of dying from cardiovascular diseases. India today is known as the diabetes capital of the world.

*Memory and learning issue:  According to research published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, having junk food continuously for even 5 days can impact your memory significantly.

There can be inflammation of the hippocampus area of the brain which is responsible for memory. The high sugar and fat contents can suppress the activity of BDNF, a brain peptide associated with learning and memory formation.

Junk foods also lack in brain foods like Omega-6 and Omega-3 fatty acids, the deficiency of which can cause problems like- bipolar disorder, dementia, attention deficit disorders, etc. Regular consumption of junk food also affects the brain in the same way as consuming addictive drugs.

*Depression: According to a study conducted at the University of Montreal, eating food rich in sugar and fat can cause changes in the chemical activity of the brain. These changes can lead to the onset of depression. Regular intake of junk food can cause withdrawal symptoms after you refrain from eating them. Withdrawal symptoms can reduce our ability to deal with stress and anxiety.

*Women's health: Junk food is found to have a bigger negative impact on women than on men.  Studies suggest that junk foods worsen women’s health issues like PCOD /PCOS and trigger a cascade of issues. Women are also prone to osteoporosis and premature fracture and more vulnerable to the effects of eating a high-glycaemic (white rice, white bread, Instant Noodles etc) food. .

*Malnutrition: While high on unhealthy contents, junk foods have very low amounts of healthy nutrients and lack in dietary fibers  causing nutritional deficiencies .Also, since they are not wholesome, children are highly capable of feeling hungry shortly, encouraging binge eating.

Children are growing at all times, and growth is supplemented by good nutrition, therefore focusing on nutritious food is top priority. Healthy food ensures healthy mind and body.  

Junk foods look appealing, are tasty, cheap and easily available. To reach this goal and to gain profit, most companies opt for cheap and bad quality ingredients like artificial colors, high fructose corn syrup, cheap quality oils(soybean, canola) ,MSG's etc. Most companies also don't follow food safety guidelines. To increase the durability of food, they use harmful chemicals and preservatives. With great marketing tactics and lack of awareness on consumers' part, there is a growing trend of junk food.

There is enough scientific evidence  available to substantiate that fast food has become an integral part of our modern  lifestyle which is not just limited to big cities and certain classes of people, but is inclusive of all income categories and found even in small villages, towns and cities .

Junk foods are increasingly being introduced at a very young age to all of us. This means that they are replacing our nutritious meals. With our sedentary lifestyles, this also means junk-related damages will be more commonly seen in younger ones.

Owing to growing concerns of student's health, on 10th November 2016, the Ministry of Human Resource Development (UGC) issued instructions against availability and sale of junk food in Higher Educational Institutions and to create awareness among the younger generation who are vulnerable to such dangerous exposures.

In a major development, the Hon’ble Delhi High Court has ruled in Udai Foundation for Congenital Defect and rare Blood Groups vs. Union of India (W.P 8568 of 2010) that junk food – high in fat, sugar and salt (HFSS) – must be restricted in schools and a 50 meter radius. Similarly, The Food and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) (2019) have presented the proposal of a complete ban on the sale or advertisement of junk food in school canteens and within 50 meters of the school campus. The idea behind this step is to promote the intake of safe and healthy food among school children.

A lot of food products are falsely marketed as healthy. Consumers, especially young ones are unaware of this as most don't read the labels or fail to understand it. Due to this reason WHO and many health experts advocate for Front Of Package Labels (FOPL) that will give consumers the knowledge and choice for better food.

Students spend most of their time in schools and colleges. While educational institutes may not be the main source for junk food consumption, restrictions of unhealthy foods here can have a considerable impact on students' food habits. Healthy foods should be provided with reasonable prices and monitored regularly. Further, homemade tiffins should be encouraged.

In our state of Nagaland serious health related issues especially gastrointestinal related diseases and gynecological complications (among girls) are found in large numbers among young population which is shocking but not surprising considering the fact of ‘free, unrestricted availability’ of junk food to them. So, as a Post-Graduate Student and a vigilant citizen I believe that the Junk Food is an equally bigger and serious threat like Tobacco consumptions or Drugs in school, college and university campuses.

In Nagaland and also all over India, we need to start a “Diet Revolution” which will awaken the careless modern generation and ignorant older generation to the importance of a ‘BALANCED DIET” with healthy eating, healthy living and healthy thinking. We can learn from Japan. In Japan, they have ‘School Lunch Program’. The goal of this program is to teach kids healthy eating habits at an early age; to help them understand the importance of nutritious foods; and to provide students with the calories and nutrition they might not receive at home.  Also, on the line of Japan, we must start ‘Food and Nutrition Education’ program for school and college students and also for employees in private and government sectors working in different capacities. Even the Churches in Nagaland and other religious and social organizations all over India must take serious initiative to spread constructive awareness among population about healthy eating habits.

We may look stronger and beautiful outside, but junk food has made us totally hollow inside. Large numbers of people have died due to Covid-19 in Europe- their diet highly dominated by Junk Food and Liquor must definitely have played a negative role in compromising their immunity and exposing them to the terminal attack of Virus. This reminds us of a timeless quote - 'Let thy food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food' – a popular phrase coined by Hippocrates (400 BC).

Now the time has come to start “Diet Revolution” on War footing so that we will be able to create a healthy generation to construct a bright and positive world for all of us. It is not just Tobacco Chewing, Gutkha, Smoking or Drugs- WE MUST VEHEMENTLY OPPOSE JUNK FOOD TOO.

(Ningning Newmai, M.A. 2nd Semester, Department of Political Science, Tetso College, Dimapur)

August 01 2021