“Extras” responsible for 36% of energy intake

A recently published study in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition examined Australians’ consumption of “extra” foods, which were defined as “energy-dense, nutrient-poor foods”. (Which is a kind way of saying junk foods or fake foods.) The study also looked at how much of a contribution these foods made to total energy (ie calorie) and nutrient intakes.

Nearly 1/3 of all foods consumed by Australians were defined as “extra” foods (1288 of a total of 4089). Nearly all participants (99.1%) consumed at least one “extra” food. Margarine, sugar and sweet biscuits were the most commonly consumed energy containing “extra” foods.

“Extra” foods contributed to 36% of daily energy intake (!!!). In a 2000 calorie daily diet, that’s 720 calories of pure crap. Yes, over 1/3 of the average Australian’s diet by calories is composed of shite food or nonfood. I imagine the average North American’s diet is comparable.

Highest contributors to overall calorie intake were fried potatoes such as french fries (2.8%), margarine (2.6%), cakes and muffins (2.5%), beer (2.4%), sugar-sweetened soft drinks (2.4%), and meat pies (2.2%).

The choices of “extra” foods were shaped by age and gender. Younger adults were more likely to consume sugar-sweetened soft drinks, fried potatoes, meat pies and savoury pastries (for North Americans, the equivalent is probably something like Hot Pockets), pizza, chips, lollies (NA equivalent is probably some kind of hard candy) and chocolate; older adults were more likely to consume sweet and savoury biscuits, cakes and muffins, margarine and butter.

Interestingly, in all age groups, “extra” foods added up to more total calories for men than women. Unsurprisingly, though, men liked their meat, potatoes, and beer; women liked their carbs — sweets and baked goods.

Overall, “extra” foods contributed a small amount of protein (16% – I guess from the meat in the pies), and nearly half of the total fat, saturated fat, and sugar to peoples’ diets. I don’t think I’d call sugar a “nutrient” per se, but then again, quoth the great Australian hero Crocodile Dundee: “It tastes like shit, but you can live on it.”

On the other hand, “extra” foods added about 20% of selected micronutrients, which is actually better than I’d have expected. A closer inspection reveals that many of the micronutrients were things like B vitamins, with which many grain products are fortified, so that makes sense. In large part, people are not actually getting naturally occurring vitamins/minerals from actual food; rather they’re getting industrially added ones to manufactured food that was stripped of its nutrients in the first place.

The good news, if there can be said to be any good news, is that you’d probably feel astoundingly healthier and lose a major quantity of body fat simply by eliminating junk food and nonfood from your diet. Forget about fancy diet plans — how about this one: DON’T EAT CRAP. Simple!

And in case you have any trouble managing this one, or are prone to debates about whether a “low fat” muffin is superior (I’m looking at you, Dad), check out the researchers’ table of “extra” foods here (Classification of 1995 NNS food groupings, a detailed list of core and ‘extra’ foods [Excel file]).

Rangan, AM, S Schindeler, D J Hector, T P Gill and K L Webb. Consumption of ‘extra’ foods by Australian adults: types, quantities and contribution to energy and nutrient intakes. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition (July 2009) 63, 865–871; doi:10.1038/ejcn.2008.51; published online 29 October 2008