Should 'Junk' Really Be a Food Group?

David L. Katz

Health, which matters enormously to every one of us as individuals, particularly once we've lost it, just doesn't make the top of our societal priority list. Wealth does, of course. But health tends to get thrown under the bus when that facilitates money making. So perhaps it's no great surprise that we can't see our way clear to restricting sales of high-capacity ammunition magazines useful for nothing but carnage, or curtailing the sale of sugar-sweetened beverages in single-serve buckets.

But even so, we do love our children. So perhaps we can manage at least to ask the right questions on their behalf from time to time. I've got one now: Should junk really be a food group?

If you have Katz column frequent flyer miles--thank you for that, by the way--you know that I devote a lot of time, effort and verbiage to making what I consider common sense more ... common. In particular, in the areas of nutrition, weight management and health promotion, divisive opinion is, in my opinion, one of the greatest impediments to our effective, collective action. I believe with the right kind of skill power, there is much that individuals can do to maintain health despite all of the modern forces that conspire against it. But I also believe that many of the best defenses of the human body reside with the body politic, and those don't happen unless we get together.

[See How to Take a Stand Against Junk Food]

So I work routinely to invoke the common sense we have in common and use it to reveal our common ground. There is no need, for instance, to choose one best diet and denigrate every other; we might agree that there is a well-established theme of healthful eating and still allow for variation on that theme.

There is no need to vilify one nutrient or food and dismiss all other concerns. There can be, and is, more than one thing wrong with the typical American diet. Those devoted to the evidence linking added sugar to our ills might reasonably concede that rather comparable evidence exists for excess sodium. On common ground, each camp would acknowledge the legitimacy of the other's claims. And then we might be in the same camp.

Arguments that all dietary fat was bad for us can be wrong, without requiring that all dietary fats are now good. An excess of omega-6 fat can be bad for us, without precluding harm from certain saturated fats or benefit from omega-3s. Some saturated fats can be harmful, and others not.

This, then, is my refrain, familiar to those who lend me their kind attention routinely. I repeat it at the risk of getting dull, because we're not there yet. There is still far too much religious zealotry applied to our imperfect and incomplete nutrition knowledge. There is far too much in-fighting to allow for the unity our urgent cause requires. So I will keep at it--trying to map out the common ground, where epidemiology trumps ideology.

But not today. Today, I will relieve you of my redundancies and myself of the proverbial uphill battle. I want to battle downhill for once. And to that end, I offer up this: Junk is not good.

I don't think that can be controversial. By definition, junk is something broken, useless or valueless. Junk is the kind of thing you pay to have carted away.

So whether or not we can share common ground populated with all of the fundamentals of healthful eating, perhaps we can at least find common cause in asserting that junk should not be, and never should have been, a food group.

[See Are We Sugar Crazy?]

We would not build our homes out of junk. I am confident an aisle at the Home Depot devoted to the sale of cracked pipes, leaky faucets or termite-infested lumber would be very bad use of that real estate. No one would buy do-it-yourself junk.

We would not put random junk in the tank of a vehicle we expected to keep running. We would not--unless obligated by extreme poverty and duress--devote a portion of our wardrobe to junk: worn-out clothes with torn seams and broken zippers.

In almost any category of goods you can imagine, junk is something we reject, avoid or discard.

Except the one category most intimately related to our health. For how we eat makes the list of the top three factors influencing years of life, and life in years. How we eat is in the top three causes of premature death, or defense against it. Food is the fuel that runs every complex and subtle function of the human machine. Food is the vital construction material of growing bodies, and bodies renewing their worn-out parts.

And somehow, when it comes to food, we are willing to embrace junk. We are willing to fuel ourselves with junk. We willingly and routinely put junk into the growing bodies of our children and grandchildren. Our culture tells us this is fine.

[See Is Obesity Cultural?]

But it is not. We once thought it made some kind of sense for row nine on the plane to be smoking, and row 10 to be non-smoking. In retrospect, we can only roll our eyes at such misguided thinking. Treating junk as a legitimate food group will take its place on that same dishonor roll some day; I just think it should be sooner than later.

I think that, because the toll of a diet at odds with our health and the health of our children is far too great to allow for dithering. I think that because fully a third of the calories in the typical American child's diet come from junk.

You might at this point reasonably challenge me: What is junk food, anyway? But before I give my answer, I will challenge you back. You know it when you see it, right? I didn't invent the term, and I didn't attribute a third of caloric intake to it. Our culture makes routine use of the term, and everyone seems to think they know what it means. Researchers counted those calories--so experts at leading universities seem to think we can identify junk food. Just this week, the Center for Science in the Public Interest released a report asserting that 70 percent of food ads on Nickelodeon are for junk--so they know what it is, too. As does the New York Times.

I think we all do. Drinkable and edible products that provide a concentrated dose of what we get in excess (calories, sugar, salt and refined starch) without providing an at least compensatory dose of beneficial nutrients native to the food--are junk. Throwing a multivitamin into the mix at the final step on the assembly line doesn't change that, in my opinion.

There are various definitions of junk food in circulation, all more alike than different. Most are subjective, but that may simply make junk food like pornography in one way at least: It may be easier to recognize than define. But we could, if pressed, come up with objective definitions. On the NuVal scale of overall nutritional quality, for example, the higher the number from 1 to 100, the more nutritious the food. Most items with single-digit scores are good contenders for the junk label.

For today's purposes, we needn't agree on an exact definition. We need merely agree that junk food exists, that we have a reasonable ability to identify it when we see it, and that it's a significant portion of the prevailing modern diet. I would then hope we could agree it shouldn't be.

Rubbish makes for a lousy wardrobe. Garbage is crummy building material for your house. Trash is poor fuel for your car. For comparably good reason, junk has no business as a portion of your diet. And yet it almost certainly is.

Renouncing junk food is not about giving up pleasure. It's about finding pleasure in ACTUAL food. Because actual food is not junk, and junk is not actually food. Let's stick with food--and love food that loves us back.

[See 7 Reasons to Choose a Plant-Based Diet.]

There really can't be any such thing as junk food. Food is sustenance. Food is used to build our bodies. Food fills the bellies, warms the hearts and grows the bodies of our children. Food is not junk, and junk is not food. Junk food is oxymoronic, give or take the "oxy."

It's only common sense that junk should not be, and never should have been, a food group. If we could find common cause in that seeming truism, who knows what common ground might open up before us.

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David L. Katz, MD, MPH, FACPM, FACP, is a specialist in internal medicine and preventive medicine, with particular expertise in nutrition, weight management, and chronic-disease prevention. He is the founding director of Yale University's Prevention Research Center, and principal inventor of the NuVal nutrition guidance system. Katz was named editor-in-chief of Childhood Obesity in 2011, and is president-elect of the American College of Lifestyle Medicine