Junk food is found just about everywhere.
It’s sold at supermarkets, convenience stores, workplaces, schools, and in vending machines.
The availability and convenience of junk food make it difficult to limit or avoid.
You may have wondered whether you should steer clear of it at all cost or follow the mantra to enjoy everything in moderation.
This article tells you everything you need to know about junk food and whether complete abstinence is better than the occasional treat.
While everyone’s definition of junk food may vary, most people agree it’s not the healthiest thing for you.
These highly processed snacks contain an abundance of calories — especially in the form of fat and sugar — and little to no vitamins, minerals, or fiber ().
While these items typically come to mind when you think of junk food, others are not so easily identifiable.
Junk Food in Disguise
Many foods that are thought of as healthy are really junk food in disguise.
For example, fruit drinks provide vitamins and minerals but may also have the same amount of sugar and calories as soda.
Manufacturers market granola and breakfast bars as being free of high-fructose corn syrup and packed with heart-healthy whole grains.
Yet, these bars may contain as much added sugar — if not more — than a candy bar.
Similarly, manufacturers market gluten-free products — such as cookies, cake mix, and chips — as healthier options than their gluten-containing counterparts, even though both foods may have similar nutrition profiles.
Even naturally gluten-free products like certain juices, chocolate bars, and hot dogs are labeled as “gluten-free” to make them appear healthier.
Gluten is found primarily in wheat, rye, and barley, and only a small percentage of the world’s population must avoid gluten for medical reasons ().
Summary Easily identifiable examples of junk food include chips, doughnuts, candy, and cookies. But some products — such as sports drinks or breakfast bars — also meet the classification, as they’re high in sugar and calories yet low in nutrients.
Junk food is thought to be addictive.
These addictive qualities are centered around sugar and fat ().
Sugar may stimulate the same brain reward pathways as drugs like cocaine (, , ).
Independently, sugar hasn’t been consistently shown to be addictive in humans, but when combined with fat, the combination can be hard to resist (, , ).
Studies observe that the combination of sugar and fat is more commonly associated with addictive symptoms — such as withdrawal or loss of control over consumption — than sugar alone (, ).
A review of 52 studies found that the foods most associated with addictive symptoms were highly processed and contained high amounts of fat and refined carbs, such as sugar ().
That said, regular or even intermittent consumption of highly-processed food has the potential to stimulate the reward and habit formation center in your brain that increases cravings ().
This can lead to overconsumption of junk food and with time, weight gain.
There is still much to learn about food addiction, which tends to be more prevalent among people who are overweight or obese (, ).
Summary Independently, sugar and fat aren’t shown to have addictive qualities, but together, they can stimulate the reward center in your brain that increases cravings for junk food.
Obesity is a complex and multifactorial disease — with no one cause (, ).
That said, the ease of access, high-palatability, and low cost of junk food is believed to be a major contributor, along with other conditions such as heart disease and type 2 diabetes (, , ).
Junk food has a low satiety value, meaning it’s not very filling.
Liquid calories — soda, sports drinks, and specialty coffees — are one of the worst offenders as they can deliver hundreds of calories without affecting your appetite.
A review of 32 studies found that, for every serving of sugar-sweetened beverage consumed, people gained 0.25–0.5 pounds (0.12–0.22 kg) over one year ().
While seemingly insignificant, this can correlate to several pounds over the course of a few years.
Other reviews have noted similar results suggesting that junk food — especially sugar-sweetened beverages — are significantly associated with weight gain in both children and adults (, , , ).
Heart disease is the leading cause of death worldwide.
Sugar intake is one of several risk factors for this disease.
Added sugars have been shown to raise a specific type of fat in your blood — called triglycerides — and increase blood pressure, both of which are major risk factors for heart disease (, ).
Regularly eating fast food has also been found to increase triglycerides and reduce HDL (good) cholesterol — another risk factor for heart disease ().
Type 2 Diabetes
Type 2 diabetes occurs when your body becomes insensitive to the effects of insulin, the hormone that lowers blood sugar.
Excess body fat, high blood pressure, low HDL (good) cholesterol, and a history of heart disease or stroke are leading risk factors for type 2 diabetes ().
Junk food consumption is associated with excess body fat, high blood pressure, and low HDL cholesterol — all of which increase your risk of type 2 diabetes (, , , ).
Summary While no one cause for the growing rates of obesity and chronic disease can be established, the easy access to as well as low cost and high palatability of junk food is a major contributor.
Though it’s important to know which foods can contribute to poor health and weight gain, constantly obsessing over food is unhealthy.
Classifying foods as clean or dirty, or good or bad, can lead you to form an unhealthy relationship with food.
One study found that following a strict, all-or-nothing approach to dieting was associated with overeating and weight gain ().
In other words, people who restricted themselves had a harder time maintaining a healthy weight compared to those who were more flexible with their food choices.
Another study observed that strict dieting was linked to the symptoms of disordered eating, anxiety, and depression ().
What’s more, people who dieted more strictly on the weekends were more likely to increase their weight in one year, than those who dieted less strictly on the weekends ().
These studies suggest that overly strict diets that completely eliminate the occasional treat not only impede weight loss efforts but also negatively affect health.
That said, many people are increasingly taking a more flexible approach to dieting.
Using this approach, 80–90% of your calories should come from whole and minimally processed foods. The remaining 10–20% should come from whatever you like — be it ice cream, cake, or a chocolate bar.
This approach also allows you to enjoy holidays, special events, or social outings without having to obsess over whether you’ll be able to eat the available food ().
Summary Constantly obsessing over food — commonly associated with strict dieting — is counterproductive for weight loss and may lead to an unhealthy relationship with food.
Everything in moderation is the typical advice when it comes to junk food.
Eating your favorite treats in moderation can help you stick to your diet (especially long term), enjoy holidays and other special events, and avoid unhealthy preoccupations with food.
Besides, completely abstaining from junk food is not sustainable, enjoyable, or worthwhile for your health.
But not all foods may be enjoyed in moderation by all people.
Some have tendencies to overconsume foods until they feel uncomfortably full. This is what’s known as binge eating.
Binge eating is often followed by feelings of loss of control along with unpleasant feelings and emotions ().
Different emotional or biological triggers — such as depression, anxiety, or hunger — are known to trigger binge eating episodes, but certain foods may also act as a trigger (, , ).
Some evidence suggests that certain foods — pizza, ice-cream, or cookies, for example — may trigger this response, leading to an episode of binging. However, research in this area is lacking (, ).
That said, if you have a binge-eating disorder, it may be best to speak with your healthcare professional or counselor first to decide whether it’s best to completely avoid trigger foods rather than having them in moderation.
Summary If you have a binge-eating disorder, speak to your doctor or another healthcare professional to decide the best way to avoid junk food triggers.
Here are several ways you can reduce your junk food consumption.
First, try leaving it on the store shelf. Not having it in your house takes away the temptation altogether.
Second, avoid eating chips or other snacks directly out of the bag. Instead, portion a small amount into a bowl and enjoy.
Also, replace your junk food with healthier choices. Fill up on:
- Fruits: apples, bananas, oranges, and berries
- Vegetables: leafy greens, peppers, broccoli, and cauliflower
- Whole grains and starches: oats, brown rice, quinoa, and sweet potatoes
- Seeds and nuts: almonds, walnuts, and sunflower seeds
- Legumes: beans, peas, and lentils
- Healthy protein sources: fish, shellfish, tofu, steak, and poultry
- Dairy: Greek yogurt, cheese, and fermented dairy products like kefir
- Healthy fats: olive oil, nut butters, avocados, and coconut
- Healthy beverages: water, sparkling water, green tea, and herbal teas
Remember that it’s best to implement small changes over time to ensure lasting results.
Summary You can reduce your consumption of junk food by leaving it on the shelf, practicing portion control, and adding more healthy foods to your diet.
Junk foods are high in calories, sugar, and fat, but lack important nutrients like fiber, vitamins, and minerals.
They’re thought to be a key component in the obesity epidemic and a driving factor in the development of certain chronic diseases.
The combination of fat and sugar make junk foods addicting and easy to overconsume.
Still, completely avoiding them may not be beneficial. Enjoying your favorite treat on occasion is a more healthful and sustainable approach for most people.
If you’re worried about trigger foods, talk to a healthcare professional.