You still probably shouldn’t eat this pile of doughnuts. (Corbis)
Good news (kind of) for junk food junkies: New research says candy, soda, and fast food aren’t the diet-torpedoing villains we make them out to be.
A new study from the Cornell University Food and Brand Lab discovered that, despite conventional wisdom, junk food is likely not the cause of the obesity epidemic in the U.S.
For the study, researchers analyzed data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, the largest dataset on food consumption and health, to determine how a person’s junk food habits correlated with their BMI.
Surprisingly, they didn’t find a correlation — meaning, how much junk food a person ate didn’t seem to impact their weight.
“I was surprised,” study co-author David Just, PhD, co-director of the Cornell University Food and Brand Lab, tells Yahoo Health. The doctor says he started doing the research because he noticed that soda taxes weren’t having as big of an impact on the obesity epidemic as people had hoped.
“I expected that there wouldn’t necessarily be a strong correlation with BMI, but I didn’t think it was going to be flat,” he says.
The findings are interesting as the U.S. is in the midst of an obesity epidemic.
Research published earlier this year in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine revealed that there are now more obese than overweight adults in America — and the majority of U.S. men and women are now considered overweight or obese.
While Just says people shouldn’t suddenly go on a junk food-only diet, he also says blaming junk food for our obesity issues isn’t right, either. “They really aren’t as big of a boogeyman as we’re making them out to be,” he says.
Just says he “started poking around” after he made his initial findings and found that there are some foods that are correlated with a lower BMI. Not surprisingly, those include fruits and vegetables.
“It’s really the whole diet that matters,” he says. “We’ve got to take a broader and more measured approach to diet instead of vilifying a few foods.”
New York City registered dietitian Jessica Cording tells Yahoo Health that the findings seem bold, but actually make sense.
“When people are focusing primarily on the healthier, nutrient-dense foods like fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, and healthy fats, there’s room for a daily treat if it fits within their daily calorie needs,” she says.
Cording says she’s seen a lot of success with clients who follow a 90/10 rule, where 90 percent of their daily caloric intake comes from healthy foods, and 10 percent is from dietary splurges. “If you make room for the occasional chips or cookie, you’re not demonizing this food — that tends to trigger overeating when you do actually eat that food,” she says.
Physical activity is important to consider, too, registered dietitian nutritionist Beth Warren, author of Living a Real Life With Real Food tells Yahoo Health. “There is nothing wrong with having a treat on occasion if your overall diet is healthful and you are physically active,” she says.
Just points out that his research didn’t look at diet-related diseases, such as heart disease and Type 2 diabetes (both of which have been linked to eating excess sugar and junk food), and urges moderation when it comes to junk consumption for overall health.
However, he says, “If it’s weight you’re worried about, there are plenty of people who are successful at maintaining a normal weight and eat these sort of foods.”