Second-Hand Junk Food

Yoni Freedhoff

In my regular battles against the unhealthy new normals of our modern-day, "Willy Wonkian" dietary dystopia, one of the common arguments I hear to oppose any sort of food regulation is that, unlike from tobacco smoke, no one ever got sick from second-hand junk food.

I disagree.

Second-hand junk food is everywhere. It's at the weekly office meeting that's held over an order of Chinese food. It's at school, where children are being taught--as a result of weekly pizza and ice-cream-sandwich days, bake sales and vending machines--that junk food is a normal, regular and accepted part of life.

[See Is Obesity Cultural?]

It's in the mindless eating that researchers like Brian Wansink have proven we all do when sitting down to meals with others who are more inclined to order junk and in so doing, powerfully influence our order (Have you ever ordered an appetizer or a more indulgent main simply because your friend did?).

[See Eating Healthy When Those Around You Don't.]

It's in the bowl of lollipops at your bank, supermarket or child's hairdresser. It's even at public libraries. Lake Park Public Library in Florida last fall distributed coupons for "McDonald's Treats" to children who took out books or registered for a library card. In Iowa, the Cedar Rapids Public Library awarded members of its summer book club (for sixth- to 12th-graders) for reading three books with a swag bag that included coupons for a Burger King Whopper, a cookie at Milio's and something called cookie dough at Coffeesmiths.

[See Why Is Everyone Always Giving My Kids Junk Food?]

It's also in children's homes. It's not for a lack of parents' love for their children--food security and knowledge is a far more complicated issue than most appreciate--but there are undoubtedly hundreds of millions of homes around the globe where children are literally fed second-hand junk food.

In these homes, actual home cooking--the transformation of raw, whole ingredients into meals--isn't just an exception, it's a literal never. The assembly and reheating of various boxes and jars, along with trips through drive-thrus and "fast casual" sit-downs constitute the entirety of those children's dietary building blocks. More importantly, those second-hand junk-food homes launch children into the world without the life skill of cooking--and with the belief that junk food isn't actually junk food, but rather just plain food.

[See Slow Down and Start Cooking.]

Second-hand junk food is real. That's not to say I support bans on junk food or think that life shouldn't include non-nutritious but delicious treats. However, it truly isn't as simple as "just saying no"; the truism that ultimately we are in charge of what we put in our mouths, from a practical standpoint, fails to appreciate the world in which we as a species now find ourselves.

Changing our new normal isn't going to be easy, and it's certainly not likely to occur exclusively by means of more "education" or the promotion of "willpower". Whether it's novel ideas like banning large cups, front-of-package labeling reforms, the return of home economics to our schools, menu-board calorie postings or banning advertising targeting children and food industry sponsorships as a whole, we need to change the world around us.

[See How to Take a Stand Against Junk Food.]

What we're seeing now isn't a reflection of weakness, it's just the normal response of living in our world's new normal, and if we want to stop seeing children under the age of 10 develop hardening of the arteries and what was once only known as adult-onset diabetes, we're going to need to change the world.

Easy, no?

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Yoni Freedhoff, MD, is an assistant professor of family medicine at the University of Ottawa, where he's the founder and medical director of the Bariatric Medical Institute--dedicated to non-surgical weight management since 2004. Dr. Freedhoff sounds off daily on his award-winning blog, Weighty Matters, and you can follow him on Twitter @YoniFreedhoff. Dr. Freedhoff's latest book Why Diets Fail and How to Make Yours Work will be published by Random House's Crown/Harmony in 2014.