Is Fast Food Really That Bad for You?

Discover the truth about fast food's impact on your health. Explore the effects of fast food consumption on your well-being and make informed choices.

Kalyn Weber
By Kalyn Weber

Published June 4, 2024.

a group of people sitting around a table eating hot dogs

We’ve all been there. You see the golden arches in the distance and your mouth immediately begins watering at the thought of those salty fries. Maybe there’s a twinge of guilt as you pull off the road and around the drive-thru to order a #6… the value! The convenience! Just how bad for you is fast food, anyway? Read more about the health effects associated with indulging in your favorite guilty pleasure.

More than 25% of Americans eat fast food at least twice a week. With the growing obesity epidemic, this figure has many nutritionists and researchers frustrated. Science now shows that, despite restaurants’ efforts to offer healthier menu options, fast cuisine is still pretty darn unhealthy. A study from last year used the Healthy Eating Index (HEI) to evaluate the nutritional quality of eight fast food restaurants in the United States. The HEI is a metric created by the US Department of Agriculture to measure dietary quality. Specifically, the index evaluates adherence to the federal Nutrition Guidelines for Americans. It uses a 1-100 scale, with 100 signifying a “perfect diet” based on the federal guidelines. How did the offerings of the fast food restaurants fair on the scale? Not great. On average, the industry scored just 48 points on the Healthy Eating Index… significantly lower than the diet of the average American. Yikes!

Why is fast food so bad for you?

The fact that fast food is unhealthy is probably not a huge shock. But what exactly is it about fast food that makes it so bad for you? Below are a few elements of fast food that make it generally worse for you than the food you eat at home.

Calories. Fast food tends to be calorically dense and nutritionally sparse. In other words, you get a lot of calories without getting many important micronutrients, like the vitamins and minerals that you need. The caloric load of the average fast food meal is close to what the average sedentary woman needs to consume in a whole day. A meal containing a burger, fries and soda can easily total 1500 calories! That doesn’t leave much room to get your nutrients from another meal without overeating!

Saturated Fat and Trans Fat. While we are not ones to bash fat here at InsideTracker (dietary fat is essential to a healthy diet!), fast food is notoriously full of the less healthy types of fat: saturated and trans fats. While a few of the larger fast food chains have removed trans fats, i.e. partially hydrogenated oils, from their deep fryers, lots of the burgers, fries, and chicken nuggets you pick up at the drive-thru still contain trans fats. Remember: trans fats are closely linked to heart disease, as they have been shown to increase “bad” LDL cholesterol and lower “good” HDL cholesterol. Saturated fats are okay in moderation but eating too much can lead to heart disease.

Sodium. The 2012 American Heart Association guidelines recommend most people consume less than 1,500 milligrams of sodium per day. Despite these guidelines, the average American takes in more than double this amount. High sodium intake can cause high blood pressure, stroke and heart disease. Could fast food be the culprit behind your high blood pressure? InsideTracker can help you track your sodium levels and other important biomarkers of health.

Sugar. Hidden sugar shows up all over the place in fast food meals. From burgers to salad dressing, added sugar is hard to avoid in food that comes in a paper bag. Scientific studies are increasingly finding links between sugar consumption and chronic diseases such as obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and blood pressure.

Missing the good stuff

As you probably realized before reading this article, most fast food contains a lot of ingredients that are just not that good for you. Greasy meals may taste good from time to time, but how much bang are you really getting for your buck when you purchase a value meal? Think about the components of a healthy diet: fruits, vegetables, whole grains, dairy, etc. It’s not easy to find these staples at your local fast food joint. 

How often do you hit up the drive thru? Think your diet still has room for improvement? Find out by getting tested with a plan from InsideTracker. We’ll help you track key biomarkers and give you nutrition and lifestyle recommendations based on your individualized results.

the top 5 biomarkers for longevity

Top 5 Bio-Markers for Longevity: Free eBook