Is There Such a Thing as "Junk Food"?
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Is There Such a Thing as "Junk Food"?

A number of nutrition professionals fairly bristle at the term "junk food." There are no good foods or junk foods, they say, just junky diets. In other words, it is the overall eating plan that counts, not the stray high-sugar, high- fat, low-nutrient item that gets indulged in here or there.

But, as professor Ashima Kant of New York's Queens College points out, there are "nutritional consequences" to choosing items like soda and chips over healthier foods. Not surprisingly, Kant found that the more junk foods that make up one's diet, the more calories consumed; also, the more fat (and saturated fat) eaten, and the less fiber.

Moreover, Kant found, as junk food in the diet goes up, down goes the consumption of vitamins A , B6 , B12 , C , folate , calcium , and iron . The lower the blood levels of many of those nutrients, too. Furthermore, people who eat more junk food have lower levels of "good" HDL-cholesterol that works to clear gunk from the arteries. And they have higher levels of homocysteine , a blood chemical that may be associated with increased heart disease risk.

Fats and Sweets Get All the Attention

Fueling the desire for less nutritionally desirable choices, Kant believes, may be the fact that "there is less advertising for the healthier foods.You ask people, 'Are you influenced by the ads that you see?'" Kant notes, "and they say, 'Never.' But they perhaps are influenced."

Studies have shown, in fact, that children are heavily influenced by food advertising. For example, researchers at the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity at Yale University found that children who view more advertisements for junk food end up eating more of this type of food (eg, sugary drinks and fast food).

But, Kant does not like the term "junk food" because "it labels foods. I have nothing against any of these foods. They give us a lot of pleasure. Unfortunately, we are eating a lot more of them and paying less attention to more nutritious choices."

However, Marion Nestle, PhD, chair of the Department of Nutrition and Food Studies at New York University, feels that "it is okay to think of junk food as junk food." Non-use of the term "gives total permission for people to have an 'anything goes' attitude," she comments. "But people should not kid themselves. While junk foods are not poison, they are not everyday foods. People need to be eating more fruits and vegetables." For those worried about their weight, she adds, "Cutting down on junk food is a great way to start."

The Influence of the Food Industry

Nestle feels the nutrition community is tied to the food industry to a certain extent. As she puts it, "Many nutrition professionals are beholden to the food industry for research money or support of their organizations." Nestle notes, there is "a great conspiracy to downplay the advice not to eat junk food" and even to avoid using the term altogether.

Michael Jacobson, PhD, executive director of the Washington-based Center for Science in the Public Interest, puts it even more forcefully. The driving force to get rid of the words "junk food" comes from the food industry, he says. And nutrition professionals "go into contortions to avoid using the term because corporate officials looking for places in which to invest in terms of grants or corporate arrangements don't want to hear their products referred to as junk food."

The American Dietetic Association (ADA) is a large organization that avoids using the term "junk food." Jacobson maintains that this is because the ADA gets "an awful lot of money from major corporations and trade associations—grants, consulting fees to big wigs, money for conferences, etc."

Sheah Rarback, a Miami-based dietitian who is one of the ADA's representatives, counters that about 9% of the ADA's total annual operating budget comes from outside organizations, with the rest coming from membership dues, merchandise sold by the organization, and related items. Further, she says that labeling certain foods as junk "is not looking at the big picture for improving your diet. It is a very narrow focus."

She acknowledges that sweets and many other dessert and snack items are low-nutrient foods and says that "we need to minimize" them in the diet. But "if someone is eating at least five fruits and vegetables a day," she notes, plus "whole grains, lean meats, and low-fat dairy products," the foods in question could fit. And in that case, she opines, it is not "junk," but only part of the whole approach.

Still Skeptical

Jacobson is not convinced. He points out that too many Americans are eating double cheeseburgers, sugar frosted flakes, soft drinks, candy bars, and other high-fat, low-nutrient foods on a daily basis. Jacobson further points out that "without junk foods, it is pretty hard to have a junk diet." The whole debate about the term "junk food" may prompt us to take a closer look at what we are eating and what our children are eating. Choosing to include more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains can help to improve our overall health.


American Dietetic Association

Center for Science in the Public Interest


Canadian Council on Food and Nutrition

Health Canada


Dixon HG, Scully ML, Wakefield MA, White VM, Crawford DA. The effects of television advertisements for junk food versus nutritious food on children's food attitudes and preferences. Soc Sci Med. 2007;65:1311-1323.

Does TV influence what your child eats? American Dietetic Association website. Available at: Accessed May 18, 2011.

Too much junk. American Institute for Cancer Research website. Available at: . Accessed October 16, 2007.

The truth about advertising junk food to children: it works. Health News Digest website. Available at: Published May 9, 2011. Accessed May 18, 2011.

Last reviewed May 2011 by Brian Randall, MD

Last updated Updated: 5/18/2011

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