Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Junk Food: Another Perspective

According to Wikipedia, Junk Food is “an informal term applied to some foods that are perceived to have little or no nutritional value (i.e. containing "empty calories"); to products with nutritional value, but also have ingredients considered unhealthy when regularly eaten; or to those considered unhealthy to consume at all.” Wow! That’s quite the definition. So what kinds of foods ARE perceived to be junk foods? 

Most of us do have our own perceptions of what junk food is. Things like potato chips, pretzels, candy, cookies, carnival and boardwalk treats, even pizza, can be viewed as junk. Pretty much anything we don’t sit down to eat at one of the three meals of the day can be, and often is, perceived as a junk food; something that isn’t nutritionally sound. High in sugar. High in fat. “Empty” calories.

Jamie Oliver's Fight against Junky School Lunches

I’d like to focus on the word “perceived” here. According to the 4th definition on Webster’s Online Dictionary, perceive is: To take intellectual cognizance of; to apprehend by the mind; to be convinced of by direct intuition; to note; to remark; to discern; to see; to understand. I think we all know that people’s perceptions can vary widely; just look at the US’s current political atmosphere!

So, can any of the perceived junk foods actually be part of a balanced diet? Take pizza, for example. My mother could never understand people who considered pizza a valid meal choice. Oh, she liked pizza. Even if she’d just eaten, if a fresh pizza walked through the door, she’d end up snagging a slice for herself. But, she would not have considered having pizza for dinner prior to her final year or two. For her, it was a treat.

Pizza Supreme (pepperoni, black olive, peppers, mushrooms) -Wikimedia Commons

But, if you plan your meal around the pizza, it can be a perfectly good meal idea. If you’ve got a combo or supreme pizza (sausage, peppers, onions, mushrooms, black olives, cheese), then you have bread, vegetables, meat, and dairy. Add a salad on the side and a quality beverage and you’ve got a meal that really isn’t all that terrible. Granted, the fat contact may be high depending on the toppings and the cheese. That can be controlled if you make your own pizza.

How about snack foods? Obviously, potato chips are not the best choice if you like to snack often. There are baked chips now, but there’s nothing quite as tasty as a really greasy, blistery deep fried potato chip (crisps in the UK). And, as the brand name says, bet you can’t just eat one! That doesn’t mean you can’t account for them in your diet by limiting how many of them you permit yourself to have.

Utz brand kettle cooked chips -Wikimedia Commons

If you crave chips but want more nutritional value you can try some of the new vegetable chips on the market. I’ve tried Terra brand myself and thought they were excellent. While you can’t swap out dinner vegetables for these snacks, you can still give yourself permission to enjoy the occasional crunchy delight without seriously diminishing the nutritional factor. Obviously, you need to be aware of your sodium intake with any processed snack.

Make Your Own Vegetable Chips
Baked Vegetable Crisps

Ice cream!! Summer is approaching and the ice cream man is already wending his way through neighborhoods with that annoyingly loud melody that attracts kids like a light draws moths. Naturally, you don’t want live on a diet of nothing but ice cream (or maybe you do, but you know better). Still, that doesn’t mean ice cream is something that can’t be part of a balanced diet. In fact, if you have a child (or even an adult) in the family who simply will not drink milk, you can use ice cream as the means to add dairy to their diet. Again, moderation is the key. To them, it can appear to be a grand treat, but to you it is a source of calcium.

White Mocha Ice Cream -Wikimedia Commons

Other snacks, or junk foods, are harder to justify. For example, candy simply cannot be incorporated into a “balanced” diet as offering anything of nutritional value. No matter how much we may like it, it has no dietary value. With diabetes and obesity on the rise, candy is something that should not be viewed as a daily item. I know that dark chocolate has beneficial properties, but I’m talking more about hard candies, gummies, nougats, jellies, and other almost pure sugar confections.

Candy displays seem the same worldwide! And always at a child's eye level!!! -Wikimedia Commons

Pretzels, because they are baked, could be part of a balanced diet as a bread (in part). Of course, the larger soft pretzels so popular in the Philadelphia metro area are so large and filling, they could replace your bread for the day, theoretically. As long as you account for them in your daily plan, you should be OK.

Pretzels are a traditional bread treat in Germany; here being sold at the Christmas Market. -Wikimedia

Anyway, my point is that perception and reality do not always walk hand in hand. Many foods considered to be junk can easily be included into a balanced diet plan. Other foods, if they can be called food, cannot be. The key is being aware of what you’re eating. By allowing yourself to have periodic pleasure foods, moderating your intake and not beating yourself up over the occasional overindulgence you can literally have your cake and eat it, too.

   Snyder's of Hanover Eatsmart Naturals Garden Veggie Crisps, 6-Ounce Bags (Pack of 12)  Harvest of Heaven Select Dehydrated Vegetable, Carrot, 1-Ounce Bags (Pack of 12)  Snyder's of Hanover Eatsmart Naturals Garden Veggie Sticks, 8-Ounce Bags (Pack of 12)  Harvest of Heaven Select Dehydrated Vegetable, Green Bean, 0.67-Ounce Bags (Pack of 12)  World Gourmet Veggie Straws Lightly Salted, 20 Ounce Bags (Pack of 3)


  1. Interesting read. I don't think are bad foods - or junk food. I think that when foods are eaten in moderation, everything is acceptable. Great post!

  2. High in fat alone doesn't mean empty calories or junk food.

  3. fantastic ideas! When I went gluten free and sugar free I discovered there was a whole other way to eat. I do some of what you've suggest.

    stopping in from the a-z challenge.

  4. You mentioned a lot of my favorite "junk" foods here. ;) Pizza and ice cream are my downfalls!

  5. If somebody set before me a bowl of potato chips, a box of candy, a bowl of ice cream, or some BBQ chicken wings, I'd go for the chicken wings every time. However, throw a bag of Cheetos at me and I'm going to eat them ;) My latest blog challenge is here: http://myheartblogstoyou.blogspot.com/