Defining Junk Food (Part 2)

The term "junk food" was not something I remember defining in school and it wasn’t on the CDR exam to become a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist. 

So, I asked other dietitians how they define it. 

Most of them said they didn’t like the term “junk food” and didn’t even use it.

Julie Seale, RD, explains, “This places moral qualities on foods, which can then lead to feelings of deprivation, guilt and potentially binge eating. Instead, I think of those less nutritious foods as ‘sometimes’ foods.” 

Jenny Jackson, RD, also referred to them as “less nutritious foods.” She added, “These foods can be different for different people [due to medical conditions]. There are also foods that are made in manners which are more ethical which makes them more acceptable and desirable for some people, and that is a decision for each person to make based on their own values.”

Jenny brings up two good points. First off, without going deep into medical nutrition, I’ll say that sometimes patients shouldn't eat normally “healthy” foods due to a medical condition. This is one reason it’s good to consult a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist if you have a medical condition. 

Secondly, personal values definitely plays a role in defining what junk food is. Some people will only eat organic food. To them, all other food is junk, even if it’s an apple or a carrot, which are normally considered healthy. 

For me, ethically, I don’t eat meat. Others may avoid meat due to fat content, antibiotics in meat, or hormones in meat. 

That said, Ann Lafontaine, RD, reminded me that, “All food has value.”  

I may not eat meat but I can still acknowledge it has value—protein, iron, and zinc, for example. 

Elana Natker, RD, added that most foods can provide a health benefit. “I can argue that chocolate has phytonutrients and it provides the benefit of satisfaction when indulging in it mindfully. Eating buckets of chocolate, though—is junk. It's doing little good for your body.”

Others reminded me that food’s value is not always in its nutrients. 

Grace Wong, RD, MSc, told me, “Food is nourishing physically, emotionally and socially…When food becomes junk in our semantics, we lose our gratitude for food and what food offers us.”

Similarly, Adina Pearson, RD, said, “One person's ‘junk’ is another person's comfort, recovery or survival.”

In conclusion, there is no one definition of “junk” food. We each have to form our own. Some even decide not to use that term at all. 

For me, I’ll continue to use the nickname “Junk Food Nutritionist” because, when I use it, I mean that even junk food has a place in our lives, even the lives of health professionals.

As Katie Pfeffer-Scanlan, RD, said, “Junk food may not harm us in small amounts (which I think makes it okay to have on occasion).”


The information provided in this blog is not intended to replace individualized medical advice provided by your own doctor, dietitian, or other healthcare professional.
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