Food that’s less than healthy has been associated with numerous bad health outcomes, including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, digestive issues, some cancers, depression and obesity.
Because of that, junk food — usually defined as processed food high in fat, calories, sugar and sodium, while low in vitamins and other nutrients — can have a connection to a range of problems, from respiratory issues to food addiction.
But a less-known drawback is regular consumption of this type of food can also have an effect on your senses. Specifically, your taste, vision and hearing may all suffer if you’re junking up your diet.
EAT BETTER, SEE BETTER
A study published in the British Journal of Ophthalmology suggests eating a “Western pattern diet” may significantly raise the risk of developing age-related macular degeneration (AMD), a leading cause of irreversible vision loss worldwide.
That diet includes processed meat like hot dogs, bacon and bologna, as well as fried food, sugar-sweetened beverages, sugar-rich desserts and highly processed grains like white bread and noodles.
“Foods that are part of the Western diet are less nutrient-dense, meaning they provide less of the beneficial nutrients needed for the eyes per calorie contents than such food as fruits and vegetables,” says Amy Millen, PhD, an associate professor at the School of Public Health and Health Professions at The State University of New York, Buffalo.
She and fellow researchers found those who ate this type of diet were three times more likely to have AMD compared to people whose diets consisted of fruits, poultry, fish, low-fat dairy and vegetables — particularly dark, leafy greens.
“What you eat to maintain good health is also related to what you eat to maintain good vision,” says Millen.
EAT BETTER, HEAR BETTER
With increased inflammation in the body, the delicate structure within the auditory system can be affected, says Dr. Sharon Curhan, of Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.
She recently led a study on how dietary choices affect hearing, particularly for older people. The study found diets rich in healthy fats, vegetables and lean proteins — such as the Mediterranean diet — can help prevent age-related hearing loss.
Curhan notes that’s likely because regular consumption of foods that increase inflammation can compromise blood flow to the cochlea, the main organ in the inner ear. In the long-term, this can cause breakdowns along the auditory pathways, leading to hearing loss.
“A common perception is that hearing loss is an inevitable part of the aging process,” she says. “However, our findings illustrate there are things we can change in our diet and lifestyle to prevent hearing loss or delay its progression.”
EAT BETTER, TASTE BETTER
One more way the inflammation from a nutrient-deficient diet can mess with your senses is dulled taste buds, according to Robin Dando, PhD, an assistant professor of food science at Cornell University, who teaches a course on sensory evaluation of foods.
The average human taste bud has about 50–100 cells each, and those have a lifespan of around 10 days before they’re replaced. That means one taste bud can take about a month to completely reset, Dando says.
“As we noted in a recent study, a high-fat diet disrupts this renewal process,” he notes. “The inflammatory response creates dysfunction in the taste buds.”
The result may be that you need higher-flavor foods, like junk food, to really taste it. Dando adds that this process can easily lead to overeating as well, because people may try to eat more to feel satiated, since their taste buds aren’t providing that cue.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Cutting down on foods with added sugar, salt, saturated and trans fats can provide benefits in numerous ways. When you replace junk food with healthier options, you’ll be doing your senses a favor, as well as kicking off other benefits like better heart health, improved body composition, better sleep and more energy.
It’s helpful to think about ways to curb your junk food cravings and eat more mindfully, two strategies that can be useful for making the pivot away from non-nutritious options.