It's the catch-all phrase used to describe anything edible that's blamed for the rising rates of chronic disease and obesity in this country, but what exactly is junk food? Given the frequency the term is used, I've never heard a satisfactory definition of junk food, or the criteria for labeling a food or beverage as such, that can help people make eating decisions.
Maybe we need a food group for junk foods to know which ones they are and how many servings a day we can have?
Some people say junk foods provide empty calories, or ingredients that are unhealthy, or are overly processed. Well that implies everything we eat is supposed to be full of nutrients. Ever look at the nutrition facts for iceberg lettuce? It's pretty empty. And what about nutritious foods, like eggs, that also happen to have a lot of something in them that isn't so good for us, like cholesterol. Are eggs a junk food? What if we eat something just because it tastes good. Should chocolate chip cookies be banned?
Blaming individual foods, beverages and ingredients for what's wrong with our health and trying to ban certain foods as a way to fix the problem just doesn't make sense. And it doesn't work, either. First, there is simply no way we could ever make a definitive list of all "junk foods", and even if we did, thousands of new food items enter the marketplace every year making "the list" obsolete very quickly. Second, people eat for many reasons, not just to meet their nutritional needs. Celebrations, rituals and traditions of all sorts are based on eating certain foods, and that is an important part of every culture.
So if you're still trying to figure out if something belongs on the junk food list du jour, here are 5 Simple Truths to help you put it all into perspective:
1. No food is bad for you unless the food is bad – as in unfit to eat. It's the quality of your total diet - everything you eat and drink throughout the days, weeks, months and years of your life - that determines your nutritional well-being. (Exceptions apply for those with diseases or allergies for which special foods must be consumed or avoided.)
2. There are no fattening foods or foods that make you gain weight. The calories in everything we eat are all equally available to be used as energy or stored as fat if not used. Some calories come packaged in foods with many other nutrients, but if we eat more of them than we need, the nutrients will not make us healthier, but the calories will make us fatter.
3. There is no perfect diet, or diet plan. Instead of shopping around for the next best diet, start paying attention to what you now eat and how that stacks up against the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Then you can begin to fix your diet one food group at a time using ChooseMyPlate.gov.
4. People come in different sizes and so should their food. There is no one serving size that's right for all of us, so don't count on that food label to tell you how much you should eat. The serving size listed on packages is just a reference amount for the rest of the nutrition information found on the label. Eating too much of something that's good for you is a much bigger problem than eating a little bit of something that isn't.
5. Hypocrisy is the worst nutrition message parents and other care-givers can deliver to children. It sounds like this:"No you can't have that junk food, it's not good for you," one day and then, "You can have that junk food because it's your birthday, a holiday, we're on vacation..." on another. It's far better to teach them how to enjoy all foods in moderation and set a good example for how to do it, one chocolate chip cookie at a time.