What really is junk food?

By May 6, 2015 June 4th, 2019 Lifestyle & Stress, Nutrition
junk food

If you have to ask, you’re probably eating it. Even small amounts can contribute to a body’s harm and pathology—no, not just emotionally, but physiologically.

In fact, eat some junk food that has zero fat, and 50 percent of it can turn to stored body fat. And as most people know, junk food is a primary cause of the worldwide overfat epidemic that’s affecting the full spectrum of individuals, from the poor to the most serious athletes.

In addition to its contribution to increased body fat, junk food may be the number one cause of the most common diseases, including cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer’s and heart disease, not to mention the problems that significantly contribute to low quality of life such as intestinal conditions, hormone imbalance, chronic inflammation, fatigue, and much more (even hair loss). For this reason, some health authorities want to refer to junk food as pathogenic food. But that won’t happen soon enough thanks to the ongoing mult-million-dollar marketing campaigns waged by the food industry—the image of these bad foods is now being portrayed as harmless rather than the poison it really is.

However, pathologic food better refers to its capability to cause pathological conditions, including those with excess body fat.

In all its many disguises—it’s amazing how easy it is to fool even the very careful consumer—junk food, including soda, chips, candy, is one of the world’s most successful business ventures. Large amounts of it are in almost all Western households, and in the East as well, including China, Japan and Southeast Asia. It’s even widespread in the Third World, where in only one generation, millions of starving people have now become overfat, thanks to junk food.

It’s widely believed that the phrase junk food was coined in 1972 by Michael Jacobson, director of the American Center for Science in the Public Interest (a consumer advocacy organization that focuses on health and nutrition). But defining junk food has been a difficult task, partly because the numbers of items are alarmingly high, and also because the food landscape is always changing with new and improved products coming and going almost daily.

In defining junk food, the worst ones are most obvious—chips and cookies, coke and colas, and other sugared liquids, candy, and most other snacks. The biggest offenders are sugar (including sucrose, white table sugar, and others such as high fructose corn syrups) and flour, and the thousands of products made from these two deadly ingredients (from ketchup and mayonnaise to energy bars and sports products, and almost all liquid refreshments).

For those on the go, junk food is synonymous with fast food, and includes almost all burgers, fries, pizza, fried chicken and foods that are battered or coated or have sauces. Included are the popular “salads,” such as tuna and chicken salad, and even those low-cal dressings. Most international foods are not exempt from the junk food category: Chinese food (high in sugar, starch and or flour), sushi (white rice with added sugar), sweetened teriyaki foods, deep fried fish and chips, and others.

Going to a deli for lunch? The popular ham and American cheese on a roll is all junk food. As is that pasta salad with crackers (almost all pasta, noodles and similar items are junk). Of course, a plain bagel and diet coke is all junk food too. Instead, have some leaf lettuce with tomatoes, red peppers, carrots and slices of real roast beef or Swiss cheese. Hold the mayo and ketchup, but mustard (after reading the ingredients) or olive oil and vinegar would be OK.

As you push a shopping cart down the food store aisle, it’s almost guaranteed that if the food is in a can, frozen, or wrapped in a package, it’s probably junk food. Consider a can of peaches, which may seem healthy—but most are packed with high amounts of sugar. Instead, buy fresh fruit in season. Even most trendy bulk foods found in health stores and other retailers, with their funky image of pure and natural, is junk food too.

It’s not only conventional foods available to consumers everywhere, but most organic items are junk too (see, “Shopping at Whole Foods”). In fact, organic junk food is one of the fastest growing segments of the natural foods industry.

It’s simple—there are two kinds of foods:

Healthy food

It’s real, naturally occurring, unadulterated and unprocessed, and nutrient-rich. If you can grow or raise it, it’s real. Included are fresh fruits and vegetables, lentils and beans, eggs, real cheese (see, “Milk proteins: The Good and the Bad”), whole pieces of meat (such as fish, beef, chicken), nuts, seeds, and similar items. Consuming these foods provide a great potential for both immediate and long-term health benefits.

Junk food is everything else

It’s deceptively inexpensive to buy and unhealthy to eat. These items are processed, manufactured, have added chemicals, sugars and other unhealthy ingredients that can immediately, and long term, adversely affect health. Unhealthy versions of healthy foods noted above include canned fruit in sugar-syrup, processed vegetables (canned, frozen or from fast food outlets) with sugar, flour or chemicals, baked beans in a sugar and flour sauce, powdered and processed eggs with trans fats, processed cheese and cheese spreads, cold cuts (bologna, salami, chicken and turkey loaf, fish sticks), peanut butter (typically containing sugar and trans fat), and roasted nuts (often with ingredients you can’t even pronounce). Of course, genetically altered items, which are not allowed in certified organic foods or in many countries of the world, would also be considered junk food.

Can we rely on governments to help us understand what foods are junk and unhealthy? Not as long as the political influence by junk food lobbyists continues. This has resulted in some absurd ideas about food. For example, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), the federal department responsible for developing and executing U.S. food policies, does not consider a Snicker’s Bar to be junk food. How about chocolate chip cookies, high in white flour and sugar? Not junk food says the USDA. Likewise for French fries, or the American version, and even an ice cream bar containing 320 calories, 12 grams of fat, and 4 teaspoons of sugar.

The USDA won’t even address the food quality of school lunches. Their standards for foods and snacks sold out of vending machines, in cafeterias, and other venues only limit the sale of “foods of minimal nutritional value.” The junk food industry gets around this issue by adding synthetic vitamins to their products and claim it’s nutritious. One problem is that the USDA, which does not address calories, glycemic index or trans fat, developed its standards in the 1970s, when most of today’s junk food and knowledge of its health dangers—and marketing tricks—didn’t exist.

Most people, including many junk food addicts, would agree that candy bars, cup cakes, colas and similar hardcore unhealthy items are examples of classic junk foods. While this is true, there’s a seemingly endless list of foods that many might not realize are unhealthy, with the same or very similar nutritional composition. These include almost all breakfast cereals, snack foods, breads, and packaged/prepared foods.

How much junk food causes harm? One bite can be enough for some people, especially those addicted to sugar (see, “Sugar Addiction: Is it Real?”). Certainly a junk food snack or meal can significantly alter one’s physiology in a negative way. This seemingly small amounts of junk can also switch on genes that trigger cancer, heart disease, Alzheimer’s, obesity, and other common, preventable conditions.

Among the ways junk-food corporations make their products appear healthy, in addition to advertising, is through the fortification of processed flour. Virtually all this flour is used in prepared and packaged foods, including most baked goods, and what consumers buy for home cooking. In the processing of wheat flour, most vitamins are removed and lost. Food fortification, which exists in over 50 countries around the world, mandates that synthetic vitamins be added to processed flour. There are at least two problems with this: first, it gives companies a way to advertise a junk food product as healthy (“contains 18 vitamins” or “100% of the daily need for folic acid”). Second, the policy of adding synthetic vitamins to one of the most commonly consumed foods in the world—white flour—has scientists concerned. Fortification has been halted in some countries due to, among other things, increased cancer rates from high intakes of folic acid (see, “The Folate Plot: How governments allow industry to put profits ahead of health—and what you can do”).

Of course, vitamins are not the only nutrients removed from processed flour. Others include healthy fats, minerals, fiber and many phytonutrients. And, the great deception of “whole grain” is advertised everywhere—especially on packages of highly processed cereals, crackers and other junk food.

The only truly whole grains that are not junk food are the real thing, wholesome kernels of oats, rice, wheat, rye and others. Of course, most consumers have never seen wheat berries or the raw grains that occur in nature. You know they’re real because they are whole pieces of real food that take much longer to cook. For example, oats in this form take 45 minutes or more to prepare. Compare this to junk food oats, which may take one minute to cook, or less as some oatmeal products only require that you add hot water.

Will governments finally participate in reducing or eliminating junk food? I would hope so. For one reason, no country can afford the overfat epidemic and it’s associated long list of chronic diseases, and with the reduction of the availability of unhealthy food, a dramatic drop in chronic disease would quickly follow. Not to mention raising quality of life everywhere.

But governments probably will not take this kind of action. Instead, they will rely on taxes. Cost, rather than intelligence or self-responsibility, is widely acknowledged by public health experts to have been the single biggest factor in reducing smoking rates. The same has started to happen with junk food. So far, New York City bans trans fats, Denmark became the first nation in the world to tax sugar, Romania has a new lower value-added tax rate on healthy foods, New Zealand is preparing to raise taxes on foods with little or no nutritional value, and other federal and regional governments are following suit. In addition, in various locations around the world there has been an increase in policies that restrict or ban junk foods in schools, and the same for television advertising during children’s shows. (But even in schools where some unhealthy foods are banned, school lunches themselves consist of significant amounts of junk food.)

There is so much junk food in the world, and deception about it, that discussing it thoroughly could fill one or more books. “The Big Book of Health and Fitness” covers more details of the subject of healthy versus junk food.

Without junk food there are still plenty of delicious snacks, meals and desserts. In case you missed it, the Recipes! section of the website is the most popular one. As I’ve discussed many times, eating well means planning ahead and carefully shopping so you always have only healthy food at home, work and during travel. By avoiding junk food I guarantee you’ll quickly feel better, be healthier and improve your overall human performance.


  • […] eating: in particular, the vitamins and minerals, protein and essential fats, and phytonutrients. Avoiding junk food is vital too. HIT is most effective when workouts are balanced. It’s important not to exceed […]

  • ramakrishnan says:

    Eating unhealthy foods causes many side effects on our body. Many people are unaware of these facts. Thanks for sharing this information.

  • JON says:

    WHAT’S THIS GUY’S CREDENTIALS?!! What college did he graduate from? What Medical School did he attend? Where did he do his Internship? Residency? Graduate work? Basically, what is this man’s C.V.?!?!?! IF he’s in fact, legit?

  • Dian says:

    Hello, I would like to ask you about your opinion of the Zone diet of Dr. Barry Sears? Does it promote fat burning or does it disrupt it? Is 40-30-30 bad macro nutrients proportion and is it possible to modify it a little? Is it healthy? Does it help endurance? Thank you in advance.

  • Dian says:

    Hello, I wanted to ask you, what do you think about the Zone diet of Dr. Barry Sears? Is it a good option? Does it promote fat burning? How healthy it is? Does it improve athletic performance in your opinion?

  • Ron Verri says:

    As a medico I find it impossible to get a clear legitimate definition either scientifically or medically of what is “junk food”.
    It seems to me that anyone who has a grief or unlike to a specific substance, food type, producer or supplier gets the attention of the minority of disillusioned medicos, dieticians, “experts”, politicians – (especially of the left variety) and journos consider it is their right to condemn any sort of food to the character of “junk”.
    If, for example I eat 50 apples – is that junk?
    If I eat 10 lettuces – is that junk?
    If I eat 10 eggs – is that junk?
    Yet I choose to eat 1 Mac Burger and that is junk?
    I have 2 teaspoons of sugar in my coffee – is that junk?
    I sprinkle salt over my ham, cheese and tomato sandwich – is that junk?
    I cook my favourite fish in “real butter” – is that junk?
    I can go on and on with examples and yet I can not agree with any of the “ill informed” definitions of junk food.
    Surely reasonable people can see beyond this farce – eat what you like appropriately and you will survive. There is no prescription or further advice that can be given to a patient.
    Patients need to be responsible for their own situations and a “nanny” society imposing all sorts of legislated impositions will not stop this.
    Why can the information publically produced not discuss the genetic and life styles of the obese be considered – always the “junk food”. I consider this aligned to the so called “year 2000” issue when catastrophic disasters would happen!!!
    Instead of making a grandstand on a fallacy, come clean and tell the truth.
    Unfortunately the truth and good news never gets reported.

    • Hello Rob,

      It’s about the nutritional quality of the food, regardless of the amount you eat. So although 10 apples may be unhealthy, we steer away from talking about quantity in defining “junk food”: at the same quantities, some foods are way, way healthier than others. When we say that “a Big mac” is junk food, we don’t mean that “1 big mac has enough of X thing to be damaging.” We mean that “1 big mac has X substance or substances that disrupt important processes in some way.”

      Whether or not 1 big mac or 1/2 of a big mac is enough to create significant damage has no bearing on whether we define “big mac” as junk food.

      Let’s use a metaphor: you can fill up your car with the very best gasoline for it, or you can fill it up with tar. Now, if you let too much of the best gasoline flow into the engine, you can damage the car (or at least make it stop working right), but that doesn’t make it “junk fuel.” It just means you put too much (or in other instances, too little) of what is an objectively good fuel. But on the other hand, let’s say you put a bit of tar into the fuel tank–so little, in fact, that it made no difference to how the engine works. This is still an objectively bad fuel—and the only reason you got away with it is because you put so little of it into the fuel tank. But the point here is that if you would attempt to use this fuel to actually drive the car, you would damage it irreparably.

      Now, we know that some “real foods” contain bad stuff — for example, apples contain appleseeds, which themselves contain a bit of cyanide. However, while we say that “apples” are food, we don’t really count the apple core as a part of it (in the same way that we don’t count avocado skins as part of the avocado “food”. Even if we did eat the apple core, and we ate enough apples that the cyanide content was damaging, we would find that almost always, we would develop an allergic reaction to apples at much lower volumes than required for the cyanide to have a significantly poisonous effect.

      Does this help explain our position?

  • John says:

    Why is mayonnaise bad? It’s an egg yolk, some acid and some oil (it can be olive oil, for example if the concern is balancing omegas).

  • Mike Welch says:


    There is a new bar on the market called the RXBAR which is 3 egg whites, 6 almonds, 4 cashews, and 2 dates. I saw that energy bars made for athletes are on the bad list of foods, but was wondering if this was bar was ok – it seems all natural etc… I am avoiding the sugar every where and was curious if dates would be ok as the sweetener.

  • Anil says:

    so, what do you recommend to have as snacks?
    Just nuts or is there anything you recommend?

  • IanColeman says:

    If shunning “junk food” is such a healthy habit, wouldn’t it be likely that the Cheyenne or the Sioux before the European conquest were extremely healthy people? They didn’t have even alcohol. But there are no records of unusual longevity with the North American aborigines, whose lives were probably nasty, brutal and short.

    Or recall Nathan Pritikin, one of the first researchers to develop the idea that salt, sugar, cholesterol and saturated fat were harmful. He followed his own diet religiously, but became cancerous at seventy and killed himself.

    Or consider Winston Churchill, who flouted every modern health rule there is, and led Great Britain in World War II at the age of seventy, and lived on to be ninety-two.

    This obsession with food is unsubstantiated by evidence. There are no double-blind, long term studies. In all probability, the length of your life and the level of health you experience in it are as genetically determined as your height.

    Somebody once asked Mick Jagger how he stayed so slim in middle and old age, and he broke down and gave an honest answer. He said, “I don’t eat much.” Right. People are getting sick, not because of what they eat, but because of how much of it they eat. That’s the real deal.

  • Michael says:

    Is canned fish junk food? I’m thinking specifically of Demmings canned salmon.

  • BO says:

    The ordinary white pasta is worse than white bread in nutrition. It contains allmost nothing in nutrition and you have to eat a lot to be satisfied. Yes they have fortified pasta but that is because it contains allmost nothing. That is what they serve at restaurants. why should we have to fortify food? It is not whole food. Check whole grain food and you will find much better and nutritious grains. Even the whole grain pasta is fake an low in nutrition. I think this pasta and pizza diet is a one of the reasons people get fat. GI is not very scientific. GL is a Little bit better. In reality you use to mix proteins, fats and carbohydrates and then GI means allmost nothing. Eat what you eat on your meditaranian hollidays ´cause it is so healthy. Everything they eat and drink there is healthy. This is bull shit. Well you can eat a healthy so called meditaranian diet but choose bulgur instead of pasta, seafood instead of sausage , pork, red meat. Refuse to eat broiler chicken. Eat nuts, legumes and whole grains, no pasta or cous cous, no liba bread, no deep fried foods, cheese and soured milk is ok, olive oil is ok. Check the nutrition value and compare with the calories on what you eat and quit junk food wherever it comes from.

  • Evelyn says:

    I was very blessed to have a wise, “ahead of his time” chiropractor who taught me that nothing God made for us to eat is bad. Eat in moderation and as close to as how it was made as possible. His quote was: “It’s not the food, it’s what man has done to it.” That was over 40 years ago!

  • Tina says:

    Hi Ivan!!

    What is your take on steel cut oats? I’ve never really been a fan…but eating eggs everyday for breakfast is starting to wear on me. I have an overnight crockpot recipe that calls for pumpkin, full fat coconut milk, honey, pumpkin pie spice and steel cut oats. I know steel cut oats take longer to cook…and from reading this article one would deduce that means they are whole grains and therefore not junk food. Thoughts?

    • Tina:

      Generally speaking, I think steel cut oats are just fine (as long, of course, that you don’t take that to mean you can eat it for breakfast, lunch, and dinner). While any kind of processing tends to elevate the glycemic index—and strictly speaking, I should recommend that you reduce your intake of them, which I do myself—steel cut oats are certainly not junk food: they’re a far cry from refined bread, for example.

      What this means is that one breakfast of steel-cut oats every now and then, interspersed within a balanced diet, stress-free life, and reasonably active lifestyle, is just fine for most people. Many aerobically fit athletes would do just fine with an oatmeal breakfast 5 days a week.

      Does this make sense? If you detect ambivalence, it’s because intake of steel cut oats are the kind of thing that you want to moderate, and reduce in a general, common-sense way. If you were talking about Coca-Cola, or hell, putting three tablespoons of honey on a bowl of yoghurt and granola every single day, I’d be singing a very different tune.

      That said, there is a difference between steel-cut oats and full oats, in terms of glycemic index and general “healthiness”. For someone with carbohydrate intolerance, diabetes, or someone who’s generally unhealthy, that difference would come into play a lot more, because we really don’t want to stack the deck with anything that could tip the scale towards illness.

  • Mircea Andrei Ghinea says:


    i see that for healthy foods you named lentils and beans. i like them, so happy they are on the good list.
    yes, they have the most protein contents from the vegetables, but still they have a lot of carbs. are those ok carbs?

    what about whole-wheat flour, i know to do my own bread. is that bread a healthy option or not really?

    are whole wheat or whole rice good options to eat? or too much carbs in your opinion?

    thank you!

    • Mircea:

      Generally, cereals (which include rice) and the other foods you mention, including whole-wheat flour, can be quite healthy in modest amounts, when someone has a high-functioning aerobic system. The problem is that when cereals are eaten in high amounts (and that someone has a low-functioning aerobic system), the body starts depending on dietary carbohydrates instead of body fat for fuel. So, while most endurance athletes has quite a good time with a diet of 40-60% carbs, sedentary people may (and overwhelmingly do) grow dependent on the carbs for energy.

      If you don’t have signs and symptoms of carbohydrate intolerance, you’re good to go: However many carbohydrates you are presently eating most likely works for you. But if you do have such signs and symptoms, taking the two-week test (and slowly incorporating carbs afterwards) will tell you how much of the foods you mention are healthy for you. And you can reasonably expect that if you are doing high amounts of endurance training, you can eat more carbs and still be healthy. (You’ll start seeing negative signs and symptoms after eating greater quantities of carbs than if you were more sedentary).

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  • Kay says:

    I have a question about deli meats being classified as junk food. I understand conventional brands that are loaded with extra junk ingredients but what about some of the more reputable brands of deli meats with minimal ingredients such as applegate and others? If there is no added sugar or preservatives etc. why wouldn’t this be considered a good option? Thanks I would love the feedback since I always thought these types of deli meats were ok.

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