Immune-weakening takeout foods to avoid at all costs

By Naveed Saleh, MD, MS
Published June 4, 2020

Key Takeaways

Much to the dismay of nutritionists and healthcare providers, fast food and takeout have increasingly become a part of the American diet. According to the CDC, between 2013 and 2016, 36.6% of adults ate fast food on any given day. And that was before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, which has since propelled the demand for food-to-go. While some of these foods can fall on the more nutritious side of the health spectrum, the reality is that most do not, with some more injurious to overall health than others. With this in mind, here are five delivery and takeout food types and examples that may taste good but are just downright bad for your well-being.

High-fat foods: Nachos

A high-fat diet not only results in obesity but also may change the gut microbiome for the worse. According to a review article published in Current Opinion in Clinical Nutrition and Metabolic Care, high-fat diets result in a drop in Bacteroidetes and a rise in Firmicutes. These alterations in bacterial flora may lead to an increased risk of obesity and chronic disease by enhancing energy harvest/storage and boosting gut permeability and inflammation, thus weakening the immune system.

“Obesity has been associated with cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and central nervous system disorders to name a few,” the authors wrote. “The mechanisms that link obesity to disease risk are undoubtedly multifactorial in origin. However, recent evidence provides a compelling argument to include gut microbiota as a potential player.”

So, you might want to avoid one uber-popular high-fat food-to-go: nachos. Just one portion of nachos from the typical eatery has a whopping 19-22 g of fat. 

High-sodium foods: Chicken Alfredo

High sodium, of course, can lead to increased blood pressure, which also weakens the immune system. According to the results of a study published in Science Translational Medicine, mice fed a high-salt diet experienced worsened kidney and systemic bacterial infections (caused by Escherichia coli or Listeria monocytogenes) secondary to reduced capability of neutrophils to kill consumed bacteria. In addition, neutrophils from healthy study volunteers who consumed an additional 6 g of sodium per day were less capable of controlling bacteria ex vivo after consumption. This additional salt equated to one or two extra fast-food meals per day.

“Given that the typical Western diet is replete with salt, these findings reveal that people might be making themselves more vulnerable to bacterial infections,” the authors concluded.

That said, although chicken Alfredo may be delicious, it’s best to skip it come take-out night. Why? Chicken Alfredo contains roughly 17 g of fat, about 300 calories, and approximately 580 mg of sodium. 

High-sugar foods: General Tso’s chicken

In addition to causing weight gain, high levels of sugar intake can negatively impact health for less obvious reasons. For instance, epidemiological studies have shown that dietary sugar intake can stimulate subclinical inflammation, as measured by C-reactive protein. Subclinical inflammation, over the long term, can play a role in the development of heart disease and is linked to diabetes, dementia, and depression. It can also contribute to all-cause mortality in the elderly.

And, if you’re wondering which delivery and takeout—besides desserts—foods are high in sugar, look no further than General Tso’s chicken. In addition to being high in sodium, one serving of General Tso’s chicken contains a staggering amount of sugar: roughly 62 g. Can you say “sugar bomb”?

Foods high in saturated fats: Loaded fries

Some debate about the nutritional value of saturated fats has arisen in recent years. The American Heart Association (AHA) “recommends limiting saturated fats—which are found in butter, cheese, red meat, and other animal-based foods,” noting that “decades of sound science has proven it can raise your ‘bad’ cholesterol and put you at higher risk for heart disease.”

“The more important thing to remember is the overall dietary picture,” the AHA urged. “Saturated fats are just one piece of the puzzle. In general, you can’t go wrong eating more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and fewer calories.”

Like the chips in nachos, fries can serve as a foundation for a smorgasbord of unhealthy toppings, including melted cheese, sour cream, bacon, and more. Loaded fries are not only extremely high in sodium but also very high in saturated fats—which increase lipid levels, namely LDL cholesterol.

So, instead of a basket of fries topped with cheese and all the fixings, go for a bowl of chopped fruit topped with a smattering of yogurt or cottage cheese.

High-calorie foods: Salad with the works

Ordering takeout or delivery foods can be tricky. Even seemingly “healthy” dishes can be laden with hidden calories. What initially looks to be a diet-friendly food option can quickly sabotage your weight and fitness goals because, as everyone knows, extra calories can lead to extra weight. Take salad, for example. Sure, lettuce on its own is healthy and hydrating. But the typical takeout salad is usually loaded with high-fat dressing, carb-heavy croutons, cheese, bacon, candied nuts, and more—which all contribute to calorie counts. Instead of high-calorie trimmings, top your salad with healthier alternatives like nuts, avocados, tomatoes, or hummus, and try going dressing free. You can even try going dressing-free or opt for a healthier, more nutritious option like extra-virgin olive oil.

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