The term “fast food” generally refers to food that people intend to consume quickly, either on- or off-site. There is plenty of well-researched evidence demonstrating the various negative health effects of eating and overeating fast food, in both the short- and long-term.
Many fast food establishments now list the number of calories each item contains. However, this is only part of the consideration of whether it is healthy or not.
Fast food is typically poor in terms of nutrition. According to a 2015 review, fast food tends to contain various substances that are generally unhealthy. It is high in sugar, salt, saturated or trans fats, and many processed preservatives and ingredients. It also lacks some beneficial nutrients.
However, not all fast food has negative impacts, and a person can make an informed choice by researching the nutritional content of particular fast food items. People can find this information on the websites of most major restaurants.
That said, even the more healthy fast food items are generally high in sugar, salt, saturated fats, and trans fats. The Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion
notes that the typical person in the United States consumes too much of these food components.
Fast food is typically high in sugar, salt, and saturated or trans fats. The body’s reaction to these nutrients results in a range of short-term impacts when a person eats fast food.
Spike in blood sugar
Fast food breaks down quickly, causing a rapid spike in blood sugar because of the refined carbohydrates and added sugar. In turn, this causes an abnormally large insulin surge, resulting in a drop in blood sugar. This can cause people to feel tired. Insulin promotes further hunger within a short time after the meal.
A small 2016 study found that consuming high levels of salt could immediately impact the proper functioning of a person’s blood vessels. Excess sodium intake also has links to fluid retention.
A single serving of fast food could increase inflammation throughout the body. A 2015 study found that one fast food meal high in saturated fat increased airway inflammation in individuals with asthma. This inflammation acts as a trigger for asthma attacks.
Affects nutrient intake
Fast food does not typically contain fresh fruit and vegetables. If an individual eats fast food frequently, they may find it challenging to reach their recommended daily intake of at least 5 servings of fruit and vegetables. They may also have difficulties reaching their ideal fiber intake, which according to the Food and Drug Administration is 28 grams per day.
Fast food is highly palatable, meaning the body breaks it down quickly in the mouth, and it does not need much chewing. Therefore, it activates the reward centers in the brain rapidly.
This combination trains the palate to prefer these highly processed, highly stimulating foods and reduces someone’s desire for whole, fresh foods.
Research from 2018 and other previous studies have suggested a link between fast food consumption and the incidence of food addiction for these low-nutrient items.
A small 2017 study of 15 adults found that a single day of high-fat overeating damaged insulin sensitivity. This can then trigger a cycle of binge eating or binge eating disorders.
There is plenty of well-researched evidence showing that regularly eating fast food can harm a person’s health.
A 2015 study identified the sometimes irreparable effects of eating fast food. Such risks include obesity, insulin resistance, type 2 diabetes, and various cardiovascular conditions.
This is because most fast food is high in sugar, salt, saturated fat, trans fats, processed ingredients, and calories. It is also generally low in antioxidants, fiber, and many other nutrients.
Many fast food meals are extremely low in fiber. Doctors associate low-fiber diets with a higher risk of digestive conditions such as constipation and diverticular disease, as well as reductions in healthy gut bacteria.
Immunity and inflammation
A 2019 review examined the effects of a Western diet on a person’s immune system. This diet consists of high amounts of sugar, salt, and saturated fat from only a few sources.
The authors noted that a Western diet could lead to higher inflammation, lower control of infection, higher cancer rates, and a higher risk of allergic and autoinflammatory disease.
Memory and learning
A 2020 paper suggests a link between unbalanced diets high in saturated fat and simple carbohydrates, typical of fast food, and a lower capacity for memory and learning. This sort of diet may also raise the risk of Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease.
In a 2018 review, the authors established a link between fast food consumption and an increase in asthma, rhinoconjunctivitis, and eczema.
The FDA suggests that a diet high in salt often increases a person’s blood pressure, making a person more prone to heart attacks, stroke, kidney disease, or heart disease.
The FDA also notes that a diet high in trans fats raises the amount of low-density lipoprotein or “bad” cholesterol and lowers the amount of high-density lipoprotein or “good” cholesterol. This means that a person is more likely to develop heart disease.
The United States Department of Agriculture points out that typical fast food contains a very high number of calories. If a person eats more calories than they burn each day, they gain weight, which may lead to obesity.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), obesity increases a person’s risk of developing a range of serious health conditions.
Another consequence of younger people regularly eating fast food is their unintentional lack of understanding of basic meal preparation, cooking, and healthy eating.
Over time, this perpetuates dependence on fast food, and people may not learn how to prepare healthy, balanced food in the home. Consuming healthy meals can support a person’s long-term health throughout their lifespan.
Mental health impact
Eating lots of fast food could also impact an individual’s mental health and make them more prone to depression and anxiety.
A 2021 study compared data from 322 males and 322 females age 30 or older. They found an association between healthy food such as leafy greens, nuts, and fish and positive mood, while the opposite was true of fast food. In addition, women reported significantly more negative associations with fast food than men.
Fast food tends to be high in salt, sugar, saturated fats, trans fats, calories, and processed preservatives and ingredients. A wealth of well-conducted research has proven the negative health effects of consuming too much of these food components.
In the short term, fast food impacts blood sugar and blood pressure, increases inflammation, and may mean an individual does not eat enough necessary nutrients. In the long term, a diet rich in fast food could lead to issues with digestion, immunity, inflammation, heart health, obesity, and more.
Not all fast food is bad, however. Certain menu items might be lower in these substances than others, while some fast food outlets might focus on providing more healthy options.
To preserve health, a person should try to identify fast food items that contain less salt, fat, sugar, and total carbohydrates, and generally try to limit the amount of fast food they consume.
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Influenza (flu) and the common cold are both contagious respiratory illnesses, but they are caused by different viruses. Flu is caused by influenza viruses only, whereas the common cold can be caused by a number of different viruses, including rhinoviruses, parainfluenza, and seasonal coronaviruses. Seasonal coronaviruses should not be confused with SARS-COV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. Because flu and the common cold have similar symptoms, it can be difficult to tell the difference between them based on symptoms alone. In general, flu is worse than the common cold, and symptoms are typically more intense and begin more abruptly. Colds are usually milder than flu. People with colds are more likely to have a runny or stuffy nose than people who have flu. Colds generally do not result in serious health problems, such as pneumonia, bacterial infections, or hospitalizations. Flu can have serious associated complications.
How can you tell the difference between a cold and flu?
Because colds and flu share many symptoms, it can be difficult (or even impossible) to tell the difference between them based on symptoms alone. Special tests can tell if a person is sick with flu.
What are the symptoms of flu versus the symptoms of a cold?
The symptoms of flu can include fever or feeling feverish/chills, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, muscle or body aches, headaches, and fatigue (tiredness). Cold symptoms are usually milder than the symptoms of flu. People with colds are more likely to have a runny or stuffy nose. Colds generally do not result in serious health problems.
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Back pain is a common reason for absence from work and for seeking medical treatment. It can be uncomfortable and sometimes even debilitating.
Back pain can result from injury, activity, and some medical conditions. It can affect people of any age and for different reasons. As people get older, the likelihood of developing lower back pain increases due to factors such as previous occupation and degenerative disk disease.
Lower back pain may be relating to the bony lumbar spine, disks between the vertebrae, ligaments around the spine and disks, spinal cord and nerves, lower back muscles, abdominal and pelvic internal organs, or the skin around the lumbar area.
Pain in the upper back may be due to disorders of the aorta, tumors in the chest, or spine inflammation.
The human back consists of a complex structure of muscles, ligaments, tendons, disks, and bones that work together to support the body and enable movement.
The segments of the spine are cushioned with cartilage-like pads called disks.
Problems with any of these components can lead to back pain. In some cases of back pain, however, the cause remains unclear.
Damage can result from strain, medical conditions, or poor posture, among other things.
Back pain commonly stems from strain, tension, or injury. Frequent causes of back pain are:
strained muscles or ligaments
a muscle spasm
injuries, fractures, or falls
Activities that can lead to strains or spasms include:
lifting something improperly
lifting something that is too heavy
making an abrupt, awkward movement
A number of structural problems may also result in back pain:
Ruptured disks: Each vertebra in the spine is cushioned by disks. If the disk ruptures, there will be more pressure on a nerve, resulting in back pain.
Bulging disks: Much in the same way as ruptured disks, a bulging disk can lead to more pressure on a nerve.
Sciatica: A sharp and shooting pain travels through the buttock and down the back of the leg. This may occur when a bulging or herniated disk presses on a nerve or when a muscle pushes specifically on the sciatic nerve.
Arthritis: Osteoarthritis can cause problems with the joints in the hips, lower back, and other areas in the body. In some cases, the space around the spinal cord narrows. Health experts call this spinal stenosis.
Unusual curvature of the spine: If the spine curves in an unusual way, back pain can occur. An example of this is scoliosis, in which the spine curves to the side.
Osteoporosis: Bones, including the vertebrae of the spine, become brittle and porous, making compression fractures more likely.
Kidney problems: Kidney stones or kidney infection can cause back pain.
Movement and posture
Adopting a hunched sitting position when using a computer can lead to increased back and shoulder problems over time.
Back pain can also result from some everyday activities or poor posture.
coughing or sneezing
bending awkwardly or for long periods
pushing, pulling, lifting, or carrying something
standing or sitting for long periods
straining the neck forward, such as when driving or using a computer
driving for lengthy periods without taking a break, even when not hunched
sleeping on a mattress that does not support the body or keep the spine straight
Some medical conditions can lead to back pain:
Cauda equina syndrome: The cauda equina is a bundle of spinal nerve roots that arise from the lower end of the spinal cord. Symptoms of this syndrome include a dull pain in the lower back and upper buttocks, as well as numbness in the buttocks, genitalia, and thighs. Sometimes, bowel and bladder function disturbances occur.
Cancer of the spine: A tumor on the spine may press against a nerve, resulting in back pain. The structural damage to the bone itself can also be painful when there are tumors or metastasis to the bone.
Infection of the spine: A fever and a tender, warm area on the back could be due to an infection of the spine.
Other infections: Pelvic inflammatory disease and kidney or bladder infection may also lead to back pain.
Sleep disorders: Individuals with sleep disorders are more likely to experience back pain than others.
Shingles: An infection that can affect the nerves may lead to back pain. This depends on which nerves have become affected. A rash will follow the back pain.
The main symptom of back pain is an ache anywhere in the back and sometimes all the way down to the buttocks and legs.
Some back issues can cause pain in other parts of the body, depending on the nerves affected.
The pain often goes away without treatment. However, if it occurs with any of the following, a person should contact a doctor:
unexplained weight loss
inflammation or swelling on the back
persistent back pain where lying down or resting does not help
pain down the legs
pain that reaches below the knees
a recent injury, blow, or trauma to the back
fecal incontinence, or loss of control over bowel movements
numbness around the genitals
numbness around the anus
numbness around the buttocks
When to contact a specialist
A person should seek medical help if they experience any numbness or tingling or if they have back pain:
that does not improve with rest
after an injury or fall
with numbness in the legs
with unexplained weight loss
Back pain usually resolves with rest and home remedies, but sometimes, medical treatment is necessary.
Over-the-counter (OTC) pain relief medication — usually, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen — can relieve discomfort. Applying a hot compress or an ice pack to the painful area may also reduce pain.
Resting from strenuous activity can help, but moving around will ease stiffness, alleviate pain, and prevent muscles from weakening.
If home treatments do not relieve back pain, a doctor may recommend the following medication, physical therapy, or both:
Back pain that does not respond well to OTC pain relief medication may require a prescription NSAID.
Codeine or hydrocodone, which are narcotics, may be prescribed for short periods. These require close monitoring by a doctor. In some cases, doctors may also recommend muscle relaxants.
Antidepressants, such as amitriptyline, may be prescribed, but research into their effectiveness is ongoing, and the existing evidence is conflicting.
Applying heat, ice, ultrasound, and electrical stimulation, as well as some muscle release techniques, to the back muscles and soft tissues may help alleviate pain.
As the pain improves, a physical therapist may introduce some flexibility and strength exercises for the back and abdominal muscles. Techniques for improving posture may also help.
It is advisable to practice the techniques regularly, even after the pain has gone, to prevent back pain recurrence.
If other options are not effective, these may be injected into the epidural space, around the spinal cord.
Cortisone is an anti-inflammatory drug. It helps reduce inflammation around the nerve roots. Injections may also be used to numb areas thought to be causing the pain.
According to research, botox reduces pain by paralyzing sprained muscles in spasm. These injections are effective for about 3–4 months.
Pulleys and weights are used to stretch the back. This may result in a herniated disk moving back into position. It can also relieve pain but only while traction is applied.
Cognitive behavioral therapy
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can help manage chronic back pain by encouraging new ways of thinking. It may include relaxation techniques and ways of maintaining a positive attitude.
Studies have found that people receiving CBT tend to become more active and do exercise, which lowers the risk of back pain recurrence.
Surgery for back pain is very rare. If an individual has a herniated disk, surgery may be an option, especially if there is persistent pain and nerve compression, which can lead to muscle weakness.
Examples of surgical procedures include:
Fusion: A surgeon joins two vertebrae and inserts a bone graft between them. The vertebrae are splinted together with metal plates, screws, or cages. There is a significantly greater risk of arthritis to subsequently develop in the adjoining vertebrae.
Artificial disk: A surgeon inserts an artificial disk that replaces the cushion between two vertebrae.
Diskectomy: Surgeons may remove a portion of a disk if it is irritating or pressing against a nerve.
Partially removing a vertebra: A surgeon may remove a small section of a vertebra if it is pinching the spinal cord or nerves.
Injecting cells to regenerate spinal disks: Scientists from Duke University in Durham, NC, developed new biomaterials that can deliver a booster shot of reparative cells to the nucleus pulposus, effectively eliminating pain resulting from degenerative disk disease.
Complementary therapies may be used alongside conventional therapies or on their own.
Chiropractic, osteopathy, shiatsu, and acupuncture may help relieve back pain and encourage a person to feel relaxed.
An osteopath is a physician who specializes in treating the skeleton and muscles.
A chiropractor treats joint, muscle, and bone problems. The main focus is the spine.
Shiatsu, or finger pressure therapy, is a type of massage where pressure is applied along energy lines in the body. The shiatsu therapist applies pressure with the fingers, thumbs, and elbows.
Acupuncture, which originated in China, involves inserting fine needles into specific points in the body. Acupuncture can help the body release its natural pain relievers — endorphins — and stimulate nerve and muscle tissue.
Yoga involves specific physical poses, movements, and breathing exercises. Some of these may help strengthen the back muscles and improve posture. Care must be taken that exercises do not make back pain worse.
Studies on complementary therapies have given mixed results. Some people have experienced significant benefits, while others have not. When considering alternative therapies, it is important to seek guidance from a qualified and registered therapist.
Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) is a popular therapy for individuals with chronic back pain. The TENS machine delivers small electric pulses into the body through electrodes placed on the skin.
Experts believe TENS encourages the body to produce endorphins and may block pain signals returning to the brain. Studies on TENS have provided mixed results. Some showed no benefits, while others indicate that it could be helpful for some people.
A TENS machine should be used under the direction of a healthcare professional.
A person should avoid TENS if they:
have a history of epilepsy
have a pacemaker
TENS is considered “safe, noninvasive, inexpensive, and patient friendly,” and it appears to reduce pain. However, more evidence is necessary to confirm its effectiveness in improving activity levels.
The following factors are linked to a higher risk of developing low back pain:
a sedentary lifestyle
not enough exercise
strenuous physical exercise or work, especially if done incorrectly
medical conditions, such as arthritis and cancer
Lower back pain also tends to be more common in females than in males, possibly due to hormonal factors. Additionally, health experts associate back pain with stress, anxiety, and mood disorders.
A doctor will usually be able to diagnose back pain after asking about symptoms and carrying out a physical examination.
An imaging scan and other tests may be necessary if:
back pain appears to result from an injury
there is an underlying cause that requires treatment
the pain persists over a long period
An X-ray, an MRI scan, or a CT scan can give information about the state of the soft tissues in the back:
X-rays can show the alignment of the bones and reveal signs of arthritis or broken bones, but they cannot reveal damage in the muscles, spinal cord, nerves, or disks.
MRI or CT scans can reveal herniated disks or problems with tissue, tendons, nerves, ligaments, blood vessels, muscles, and bones.
Bone scans can detect bone tumors or compression fractures resulting from osteoporosis. A radioactive substance, or tracer, is injected into a vein. The tracer collects in the bones and helps the doctor detect bone problems with the aid of a special camera. Doctors use these for bone conditions and difficult-to-detect fractures.
Electromyography measures the electrical impulses produced by nerves in response to muscles. This can confirm nerve compression, which may occur with a herniated disk or spinal stenosis.
A doctor may also order a blood test if they suspect an infection.
Other types of diagnosis
A chiropractor will diagnose through touch, or palpation, and a visual examination. Chiropractic is known as a direct approach, with a strong focus on adjusting the spinal joints. A chiropractor may also want to see the results of imaging scans and any blood and urine tests.
An osteopath also diagnoses through palpation and visual inspection. Osteopathy involves slow and rhythmic stretching, known as mobilization, pressure or indirect techniques, and manipulation of joints and muscles.
A physical therapist focuses on diagnosing problems in the joints and soft tissues of the body.
Chronic or acute pain?
Health experts distinguish two types of back pain: acute and chronic.
Acute pain starts suddenly and lasts for up to 6 weeks.
Chronic, or long-term, pain develops over a longer period, lasts for over 3 months, and causes ongoing problems.
If a person has both occasional bouts of more intense pain and fairly continuous mild back pain, it can be hard for a doctor to determine whether they have acute or chronic back pain.
Steps to lower the risk of developing back pain consist mainly of addressing some of the risk factors.
Regular exercise helps build strength and manage body weight. Guided, low impact aerobic activities can boost heart health without straining or jerking the back.
Before starting any exercise program, a person should consult a healthcare professional.
There are two main types of exercise that people can do to reduce the risk of back pain:
Core-strengthening exercises work the abdominal and back muscles, helping strengthen muscles that protect the back.
Flexibility training aims at improving core flexibility, including the spine, hips, and upper legs.
A person’s diet should include sufficient amounts of calcium and vitamin D, as these are crucial for bone health.
A balanced diet also helps manage body weight.
A significantly higher percentage of people who smoke have back pain incidences, compared with individuals who do not smoke and who are of the same age, height, and weight.
The weight people carry and where they carry it affects the risk of developing back pain.
People with obesity are at considerably higher risk of experiencing back pain than those with a moderate body weight.
Moreover, people who carry excessive weight in the abdominal area rather than in the buttocks and hip area are also at greater risk.
Posture when standing
Make sure you have a neutral pelvic position. Stand upright, with the head facing forward and a straight back, and balance your weight evenly on both feet. Keep your legs straight and your neck in line with the rest of the spine.
Posture when sitting
A good seat for working should have good back support, arm rests, and a swivel base.
When sitting, try to keep your knees and hips level and keep your feet flat on the floor or use a footstool. You should be able to sit upright with support in the small of your back.
If you are using a keyboard, make sure that there is a 90-degree angle between the upper arm and forearm.
When lifting things, use your legs, not your back, to do the lifting.
Maintain a long spine and keep your feet apart, with one leg slightly forward so that you can maintain balance. Bend only at the knees, hold the weight close to your body, and straighten the legs while changing the position of your back as little as possible.
Bending your back initially is unavoidable, but when you bend your back, try not to stoop and be sure to draw your low belly in so that your pelvis stays neutral and supported. Most importantly, do not straighten your legs before lifting, or you will be using your back for most of the work.
Avoid lifting and twisting at the same time
If something is particularly heavy, see whether you can lift it with someone else. While you are lifting it, keep looking straight ahead, not up or down, so that the neck is in alignment with the rest of the spine.
It is safer for the back to push, not pull, things across the floor, as that way, you will be using your leg strength.
Shoes with a low heel place less of a strain on the back. However, some flat shoes with minimal support, such as flip-flops, can also contribute to back pain.
It is important to have proper support for your back when driving.
Make sure the wing mirrors are properly positioned so that you do not need to twist. The pedals should be squarely in front of your feet.
If you are driving for a long time, have many breaks. Get out of the car and walk around.
You should use a mattress that keeps the spine properly aligned and supports the weight of the shoulders and buttocks. Also, use a pillow that does not force your neck into a steep angle.
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