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Platter of loaded hot dogs and potato wedges, with various condiments
There is evidence that junk food can be addictive, as the combination of salt, fat and sugar makes it hard to stop eating. Photograph: jenifoto/Getty Images/iStockphoto
There is evidence that junk food can be addictive, as the combination of salt, fat and sugar makes it hard to stop eating. Photograph: jenifoto/Getty Images/iStockphoto

Should I worry about eating too many takeaways?

We all know they tend to be full of salt, sugar and additives – but when does an occasional treat become an unhealthy habit? We separate the fat from the fiction

We’ve all been there. It has been a long day, there is nothing in the fridge, cooking seems arduous and the solution is obvious: takeaway.

It’s easy for takeaways to drift from once-in-a-while treat to twice-weekly emotional crutch. At some point, you have to wonder: even if you don’t look different in the mirror, is it doing you any harm?

There is some evidence that too many takeaways can lead to weight gain, but the relationship isn’t clearcut. A 2022 study found a correlation between eating takeaway-style food in the 24 hours before taking the survey and increased BMI in participants, although the researchers were careful to point out that they didn’t know whether frequently eating takeaways made people overweight, or whether overweight people frequently eat takeaways. There is, however, evidence that simply living near (or walking past) a takeaway outlet or two can have an impact on body weight, with exposure to outlets on a commute, or near the office, most likely to tempt people.

But why? Well, takeaway food tends to be high in fat and salt – ingredients that are relatively cheap and taste good, making you more likely to reorder. “It’s worth noting that big food companies put considerable effort into identifying the combinations of ingredients that make their food particularly moreish, which drives overconsumption,” says Kim Pearson, a nutritionist and the founder of Intelligent Weight Loss. “It’s much easier to overeat a highly processed pizza containing refined carbs, fat and salt, compared with a plate of vegetables or salad.”

Pizza also tends to be calorie-dense in a way that is easy to underestimate – a single slice of takeaway pizza might be 250 to 350 calories, which doesn’t sound too bad until you accidentally eat four (or was it five?) of them. There is also some evidence that junk food can be addictive, as the combination of salt, fat and sugar makes it hard to stop eating. On the plus side, there doesn’t seem to be anything inherently bad about monosodium glutamate, or MSG, the umami-tinged flavour enhancer often used in Asian cooking. Many of the studies purporting to show its negative effects use doses that would never arise in cookery.

There is also the nutritional quality of the ingredients themselves. “Most takeaways contain highly processed ingredients and additives, refined and nutrient-devoid carbohydrates and plenty of deep-fried foods cooked in refined seed oils heated to high temperatures,” says Pearson. “In the case of meat, it’s highly unlikely that your takeaway provider is using free-range, organic meat. They are far more likely to be using poor-quality, factory-farmed meat.”

This isn’t just an issue for the animals – studies show that grass-fed beef, the kind raised in better conditions, typically has a better profile of fatty acids and a higher antioxidant content than the grain-fed variety. (There is also some evidence that stressed animals taste worse, but it’s less clear whether there is any impact on their nutrient profile.)

So, what is the – ah-ha – takeaway message? If you are going to indulge, consider the options: “If you’re going to eat meat, beef and lamb are typically much less likely to have been intensively reared compared with chicken or pork,” says Pearson. “Avoid factory-farmed and processed meats such as most chicken nuggets or the pork found in pepperoni or pork balls. Instead, go for unprocessed meat, like the chunks of lamb found in curries and beef in stir-fries.”

The worst offenders on any menu are likely to be deep-fried foods, or anything covered in high-sugar sauces. If you order Chinese food, opt for steamed dumplings, grilled fish or soup. If you are going for Indian food, go light on the naan bread and heavy on the side dishes, which are often more flavourful (so make you feel fuller faster) and nutrient-dense. If you are going for pizza, non-branded might be best – local places often cook fresh to order, with fewer additive-laden ingredients.

Alternatively, think outside the box. “I’m a fan of Vietnamese food – think green papaya salad, summer rolls, braised or grilled sea bass, plus greens for side dishes. There are also Lebanese options like tabouleh salad, aubergine and tomato dishes, lamb shish kebab and lentil soup,” says Pearson.

Finally, try to cut your consumption: consider switching your commute to take you past fewer tempting eateries; hide the menus; delete the apps on your phone. If you are going to default to the easiest option, try to make it the healthier one.

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