'Junk food' needs no defense, 'healthy food' needs no praise
Some foods offer more or less nutrition than others. We shouldn’t think of food as “bad” or “good,” but we should understand it better to make choices in a twisted system.
Bon Appétit, a leading American food publication, says it’s redefining “junk food.” It recently published a package of stories about how it’s “time to look beyond the nutrition label and recognize that junk food can be good to us, too.” BA asserts that “junk food”—which it defines as “snack foods with little nutritional value”—is a source of “pleasure, indulgence, and even community.” Junk food then, can still be good for us in a spiritual sense.
That doesn’t make it good for us in a physical sense, and saying so isn’t an indictment of our compulsion to eat it for reasons of taste, comfort, or belonging. Establishing junk food as an underdog that needs defense from a dominant “wellness” culture—something BA’s package ostensibly seeks to do—occludes the fact that “junk food” is no less a product of a dominant food-producing industry: Our food system’s brands and corporations try to separate you from your money for their less nutritious, more “addictive” food just as diet and weight loss brands do for their bogus “get thinner” products. You’re not choosing the less oppressive option when you select Cheez-Its (my personal favorite) over kale chips—to exercise freedom in this twisted system is to choose what you like and what’s good for you, as often as you can, so that you as an individual can thrive. The problem with junk food is: We feel we like it best because it’s engineered to make us obsessed with it, and it’s everywhere.
Still, eating junk food isn’t morally bad any more than eating “healthy food” is morally good. “Healthy,” “good,” and “bad” tend to be meaningless labels. Given that, the nutrition label is in fact the only one that should matter most of the time. It’s simple: We need macronutrients (protein, certain fats, complex carbs) and micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) to function well, and some foods have more than others. We don’t have to stop eating junk food entirely, but we should attune ourselves to the facts of our food as much as we can, and understand these facts’ implications on our personal well-being, not summarily declare a type of food wholly “good” because it is ubiquitous, it entices us, and its consumption is commonplace.
It’s clear why “yay junk food” pieces—not just in BA; this Times piece was a hit in 2021—are happening now. Popular discourse is turning its attention to how food and eating shame, low-calorie dieting, and a thinness-obsessed culture have harmed us. We’re seeing how so-called “wellness” concepts are often just weight loss concepts stacked atop one another in a trench coat and mustache, staggering onto our timelines. This turn is positive and necessary. But the opposite of “eat less junk food” isn’t “follow a miserable weight-loss diet.” Consuming foods more nourishing than junk foods doesn't have to have anything to do with body size at all. And if we think of all food in terms of facts—it’s high in protein; it’s low in sodium; my stomach doesn’t tolerate it; it cooks quickly and has a lot of vitamins—instead of its supposed righteousness or lack thereof, we can block out the noise of food shame or smugness and make informed choices according to our values.
What’s meant when junk food is called “addictive”?
Many foods we classify as junk foods are hyperpalatable. They feature a combination of refined sugar, trans fats, high sodium, and simple carbohydrates. They are engineered to make us eat more, even when we’re not hungry. This includes many “diet” food products—corporations count on you buying more, whether for indulgence or ostensible moderation. You’re not wrong, bad, or gluttonous for liking these foods, because that’s how humans work; we evolved to prioritize high-calorie, energy-dense food when it was scarce. In the past, though, available energy-dense foods were fruits or animal meat and marrow, not low-nutrient snacks. Now, this food is available everywhere. We become “addicted” to it in the sense that it makes us feel a next-level high from levels of sugar, fat, etc. that we didn’t encounter for millennia. Now, it’s easy to consume it constantly, so we do.
This is why I find junk food particularly damaging for our well-being—set aside any potential effects on body weight or fat, measures like cholesterol levels, chronic conditions, even the lack of nutrients that keep us functioning well, and junk food isn’t great for us because it fundamentally changes how we interact with and relate to food. It did this to me for years.
I’ve written how I used to eat tons of junk food all the time as a habitual binge eater. I also ate it frequently even if I wasn’t full-scale binging. Until I stopped eating so much of it, I didn’t know how bad it was making me feel, or how much better I could feel. As I worked through my disordered eating and changed my habits, I saw that my intuition around hunger, and what I craved—what I thought I wanted—had been totally distorted by hyperpalatable foods. Intuitive eating, increasingly discussed as an anti-diet personal health approach, is about “trusting your body to make food choices that feel good for you.” I learned I could not trust my body when it was constantly under the influence of junk food. Diet culture told me, “You’re not really hungry, you’re just thirsty.” Junk food told me, “You still want more dessert even though you’re uncomfortably full.” My intuition had been compromised by junk food as much as it had been by diet culture. I sought a middle ground.
When I didn’t keep this food around the house, I came to want it less. I did not, and still do not, feel a pervasive sense of restriction from hyperpalatable food because after a short time, I didn’t want it that much. My palate changed. For a little while I craved these foods in their absence, sure. Frankly, I just had to get over it because I valued a life without binge eating. I could move past the temporary discomfort of junk food cravings to reach an overall more positive relationship to food. Now, if I really want something, I eat it, but typically in a context less conducive to binging—I buy a slice or two of pizza to eat at a restaurant table instead of buying a whole frozen pie to eat at home, for instance. There are some foods I used to crave with a crazed fervor that I almost never want anymore. To me, pulling back from eating hyperpalatable food regularly was not dieting or restricting in a misguided effort to lose weight quickly. It was taking back my own agency around food.
There’s a lot of talk lately about “normalized eating disorders.” I’ve seen suggestions that efforts to eat fewer refined carbs, or reduce portion size, or drink less soda are part and parcel of the normalization of eating disorders. To be clear: Our culture has long promoted intensely restrictive eating practices and diets that can contribute to a destabilized relationship to food and a fear of eating driven by a fear of weight gain. Some people who make such changes or eat a certain way could have a distressed and problematic relationship to food. A lot of people, especially in the “wellness influencer” space and lately on TikTok, are uplifting some heinous eating-related “advice.” But a lot of everyday people are just reaching for what feels like a healthier relationship to food rather than one that feels beholden to sudden cravings for foods that offer little more than hyperpalatable taste. Some of the same actions that could be indicative of disordered eating for one person simply are not for others.
I wonder what our culture at large thinks non-disordered eating is at this point. Eating as much junk food as I craved in the moment wasn’t ordered eating for me. Eating far more than I needed—because hyperpalatable food had obliterated my ability to differentiate hunger from cravings for products Nestlé engineered in a food lab, because it made me feel the rush from a box of cookies was the best way to manage my emotional pain—was the disorder. Binge eating disorder is three times more common than anorexia and bulimia combined. And yet, when we talk about “disordered eating,” we seem to only think of anorexia, purging, or low-calorie crash dieting. I wonder if the most normalized eating disorder of all is the one that low-nutrition food product companies really love that so many of us have.
Anne Helen Petersen, a writer whose insightful work I’ve quoted in this newsletter, wrote a story for the BA package titled “There Is No Such Thing as ‘Junk Food.’” She writes: “It does not make you a worse person to eat ‘junk food,’ and it certainly doesn’t make you a better person to eat whole grains … food does not have moral character, and consuming it does not influence or inflect our own character.”
That’s right. Eating junk food doesn’t make us bad people. That doesn’t change the fact that some food has more negative potential when consumed in great quantities with great frequency. In this way, I can’t help but think of it like I do social media. Most of us understand and can agreeably discuss how Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, TikTok, et al. are objectively bad for us when we use them a lot. Twitter users calling it a “hell site” is practically a trope. Most people we know will “take a social media break” at some point, and we nod in respectful observance of this attempt at self-care. We don’t declare: “Social media, this thing we know is potentially very bad for us, these platforms run by unfeeling corporations profiting off of our dependency, is fully good, actually, because we like them and they’re hard to quit!” We can agree that social media is good in some ways sometimes but has diminishing returns. The same is true for junk food.
Of course, we have to eat and we don’t have to use social media. The conversations about why heavy social media use isn’t so great are nowhere near as emotionally loaded as why eating junk food all the time isn’t. No one should be made to feel judgment or shame around something they must do to survive, and while we don’t have to eat junk food to survive, it’s often the easiest, cheapest, and most convenient way to eat. I think that should make us angrier than it does. I think that pushing back against this reality as much as any of us can is an act of personal power. I also think it’s more easily done than we realize.
How? We talk about what people can eat to replace some of the less nutritious food, even if they get most of their food from fast food restaurants or convenience stores. We stop assuming such information is the creep of weight loss culture disguised as wellness culture, since “healthier choices” does not necessarily mean “dieting choices.” We uplift the simplest, most straightforward understanding of what “balanced” meals look like and the benefits of having more of them.
Consider what I call “the turkey sandwich principle” of balanced meals, which I wrote about in my piece on “lazy meals.” Meals that have a mix of lean protein, mono- and polyunsaturated fats, complex carbs, and vegetables or fruit provide you macronutrients and vitamins and are less likely to spike and drop your blood sugar, which saps your energy. If you’ve ever eaten a plain bagel with cream cheese at 9 a.m. and then felt tired (and hungry) as hell at 10:45, you know what I mean.
This simple maxim helps me choose meals that keep me full, satisfied, and energized. That’s nourishment. It’s not about eating less—I wrote how this concept helps me choose complete meals, too: “I’d personally consider a bagel with cream cheese just as incomplete/a less-ideal meal choice as a solitary orange; the orange isn’t enough food, the bagel’s going to spike the blood sugar, both lack protein.” A handful of almonds for lunch and a bowl of lettuce for dinner is as nutritionally incomplete as bagel breakfasts are.
You don’t have to turkey sandwich it all the time. Of course you’ll eat “incomplete” meals and snacks. Just eat completely more often than you don’t. The turkey sandwich principle slides nicely into the old “80/20” eating concept, which I think is a good one.
Per that concept, if you’re getting fast food or don’t have access to a big grocery store with a lot of options, you can still consider:
A McChicken with apple slices is a more nutritious choice than a Big Mac and fries; a McDonald’s sausage burrito is a more nutritious option than McDonald’s hotcakes.
You can get nutrient-dense frozen food and snacks at stores like CVS.
Many corner stores have plain yogurt, canned beans and vegetables, tuna, and fruit in its own juice.
Most fast-food chains have more nutritious items somewhere on the menu. Here’s a 35-item slideshow of some of them, and it’s not all salads.
Here, in a Grub Street article from 2019, are simplifying insights into eating that bypass the fad diet nonsense and remind us that eating a balanced mix of nutrient-dense food is all we really need to care about. I consider it the G.O.A.T. of food articles. Supplement it with some of the ideas on forums like r/EatCheapAndHealthy, like this post from a professional chef (including why “junk” food isn’t the kind that gets you the most for your dollar; but note, it’s not perfect, e.g., “try to find somewhere to live with better food accessibility”—yeah, OK, thanks for that…) and you’ll be off to a good start.
No one likes the sound of this at first, I know. No one likes the people chirping about “healthier swaps!” and it all sounds like wet blanketry. If you don’t care, cool, don’t care. We all operate according to our values. But if you feel like shit all the time as I have and think the food you eat might have something to do with it, you can recognize that this isn’t a personal failing, the system is operating according to its design, but you have the ability to tweak your own habits a bit—because you care about yourself more than the Coca-Cola corporation will ever care about you.
Found your essay through Freddie deBoer’s newsletter, and so glad I did. Excellent run down! This describes a lot of my experience until I, too, got away from hyperpalatable foods. Brings to mind how people who easily eat well all the time don’t feel like they’re denying themselves at all—it requires very little effort, actually, because we’ve kicked the addiction of all the added sugars and processed foods.