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What is Junk Food?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 16, 2024
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The term “junk food” is used to describe food that is low in nutritional value, with a comparatively high caloric value. Many people try to avoid or limit such food in their diets, out of concerns that it is not healthy, despite the fact that numerous food manufacturers produce a range of products which could be considered junk. Nutritionists, doctors, and other health advocates often work to educate people about junk food, encouraging them to eat well balanced diets which contain a high proportion of healthy foods.

This term was coined in 1972 by advocates at the Center for Science in the Public Interest who wanted to raise public attention about the issue of foods with a high caloric value and a low nutritional value. For manufacturers, producing such foods has great appeal, as they tend to be cheap to make and easy to handle. They also have an extended shelf life, making them easy for stores to stock and sell.

Foods which fall under the umbrella of “junk food” vary, depending on a number of factors. Snack foods like chips, candies, and so forth are generally universally agreed upon as fitting in this category, and some people also lump fast food like hamburgers, pizza, and fries into the group. In some communities, ethnic takeaway food like gyros, Indian curries, tacos, fish and chips, and so on is also considered to be junk food.

Often, the foods which someone considers to be junk food are very telling. Definitions tend to hinge on someone's class and social status. People with more money tend to have a broader definition, causing some people to accuse them of class snobbery, while lower-income individuals may recognize fewer foods as junk food. Especially in the case of ethnic foods, a classification as “junk food” could be perceived as rather offensive, given that such foods have been prepared and consumed for centuries, and many are actually quite healthy.

As a general rule, no matter what one classifies as junk food, such foods are perfectly safe to eat, as long as they are integrated into a well balanced diet. There's nothing wrong with having some potato chips now and then, but consuming a diet based primarily on such food is a cause for concern. Because junk food often lacks useful vitamins and minerals, people who eat it exclusively may suffer from nutritional deficiencies that could cause health problems, and they may experience other physical issues like indigestion as a consequence.

In some regions of the world, advertising of junk food is carefully controlled and monitored, out of the concern that such foods often appeal to children. Advertisers may be specifically prohibited from making advertising which targets children, for example, and any claims made about the nutritional benefit of foods are typically closely evaluated to determine how factual they are.

DelightedCooking is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a DelightedCooking researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon1001025 — On Feb 19, 2019

Pizza isn't a junk food! I am Italian and some science research found that it wasn't a junk food because it has fewer calories than chips or burgers.

By fire — On Nov 07, 2014

I love to eat carbs and junk food. How can I stop eating this food?

By anon975272 — On Oct 25, 2014

I love junk food but I eat it in very low quantities. I eat it once a month or once every two months.

By anon960667 — On Jul 11, 2014

What is junk food exactly? This may seem like a stupid question, but what are "healthy" foods that aren't really healthy?

By anon956332 — On Jun 13, 2014

I have recently heard that junk food makes kids stupid! I have got the same topic for my project.

By feasting — On Nov 04, 2012

French fries are the most addictive form of junk food to me. I just can't stop eating them once I start.

So, I've switched to sweet potato fries. I toss raw sweet potato slices in olive oil and sprinkle them with salt and pepper, and then I bake them to avoid calories from grease. They are delicious and so very nutritious.

By seag47 — On Nov 04, 2012

I'm surprised that tacos are listed as junk food. I think this should depend on what you fill them with.

Sure, tacos filled with beef and cheese are not great for you. What if you fill them with ground turkey and avocado or chicken and tomato instead?

Even though the shell may have been fried in oil, the whole thing shouldn't be considered junk. The fillings could easily have valuable nutrients and little fat.

By JackWhack — On Nov 03, 2012

@kylee07drg – Teenagers can afford to eat a lot of junk food, because they have fierce metabolism. I remember being shocked when I turned twenty-three and started gaining weight, because I was only eating the same stuff I had been for all my life.

Suddenly, a bag of candy became my enemy. I learned that junk food would hurt me, so I altered my diet a bit.

I learned to love fruits and vegetables way more than I love junk food. I think that just knowing that something is good for me makes me feel good about eating it, so I begin to crave it instead of junk. My body tells me what it needs, and I listen.

By kylee07drg — On Nov 02, 2012

I spent my teenage years eating junk food. My only nutrition came from the dinners that my mom would cook every night, but during the day, I ate bad stuff.

At lunch, I would eat a ham sandwich on white bread with potato chips and a cookie. Sometimes, it was bologna instead of ham and a brownie instead of a cookie, but it was always bad.

My favorite snack was a slice of bologna cut into four wedges and placed on crackers. I would eat this every day after school.

By anon210187 — On Aug 29, 2011

@Momothree: I'd suggest trying to find healthier foods which come close to the taste or texture of the junk foods you currently crave. Try baking some thinly sliced potatoes drizzled with a little olive oil and a salt substitute like Mrs. Dash. You'll get just as satisfied as you would have been with potato chips. Go for the lower fat "churned" ice creams at the store, or try some sugar-free alternatives. You may be surprised at the taste of many modern sugar-free products-- they don't have that nasty chemical taste like saccharin anymore.

I'd also suggest purging the entire house of most junk foods. Out of sight, out of mind. Try lower carb snack items like pork skins and lightly salted peanuts between meals. Fruit sticks and string cheese (lower fat varieties are available) are also convenient snacks to keep in the fridge.

I have found that keeping bottled diet green tea or flavored water around the house will keep me weaned off the sugary sodas. Don't fool yourself with "diet" sodas, though. They can still make you crave actual junk food, just like the regular sodas. Good luck with your diet plan, and don't get discouraged if the numbers on the scale stop moving. For many people, it's more about inches than pounds.

By CellMania — On Aug 26, 2010

@momothree: I used to be the same way. Every morning when I got up, I would immediately feel the craving for sugar. I would start my day off with a couple of Little Debbie cakes or doughnuts. I also would crave salty food, as well. I was hung up on McDonald’s fries.

After gaining about 30 extra pounds, I knew I had to do something. I have been on a diet for about 11 weeks and have lost 16 pounds so far. What I do when I am craving my junk food is an intervention. I keep sugar-free pudding with me for the sweet tooth. It is really good and you can’t even tell that it doesn’t have sugar. For my salt attack, I eat a few pretzels.

I have also stayed away from “junk” drinks. I drink lots of water. I use the sugar free flavor packets and they are really good.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t completely deprive myself of everything. I did eat a Butterfinger last week but I’m okay with that because every now and then, I deserve it!

By momothree — On Aug 26, 2010

I think I'm what you would call a "junk food junkie". It seems as though I physically crave the stuff that is bad for me. I am going to be starting a diet next week and I don't know what to do when I get those junk food cravings. I have a bad sweet tooth and then I crave something salty. Any advice would be appreciated.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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