Happy “No Food Is Junk Food” Day 2016!

I can’t stand candy corn. Yes, I’m that person in the office at Halloween. While many of my colleagues greedily loot the bowl of unnaturally orange kernels, you couldn’t pay me to eat it. For some, it’s a special once-a-year treat that fills their corn syrup-laden hearts with joy, but for me, it’s useless. I don’t judge them or think candy corn should be banned or taxed to discourage consumption, because I know that not all of the foods I love are always appreciated by everyone. That’s what taste is. No food is “junk” if someone finds it valuable.

Yet, this Thursday many Americans will celebrate National Junk Food Day by consuming “junk food,” which is defined as being generally “high in fats, sugars, salt and calories and contain[ing] very little nutritional value.” While the “holiday” might seem frivolous, in an era when cities, states, and federal agencies are pushing for taxes on soda, fat-bans, and limiting salt in food, it serves as a reminder that there is no freedom more basic than being able to decide what goes into your own body. To have other negatively judge your choices is one thing, to have those in power override your judgement with their own is another thing altogether.

There is no such thing as junk food. Westerners love to use the phrase “junk food” to describe foods that have too much of one nutrient or the other, but, as I’ve written before the idea of junk food is an oxymoron:

There is food that is less nutritious or perhaps higher in calories than what people normally think of as “health foods,” but calling food “junk” implies that is without value. As Professors Stanley Feldman (of London University and the Imperial College School of Medicine) Vincent Marks of the University of Surrey, put it in their book Panic Nation,“[e]ither something is a food, in which case it is not junk, or it has no nutritional value, in which case it cannot be called a food.”

The value of any particular food item is subjective and contextual. Is the occasional buttery popcorn at a movie valuable? For me, and many others it is; the treat of popcorn compounds the treat of going to see a movie, making it an extra special event. Would it be a good idea to eat nothing but buttery popcorn all day every day? Probably not. But that doesn’t mean popcorn is unhealthy or “junk”—it means that person has an unhealthy diet.    

There is no doubt that the U.S. and other developed nations are having a problem with obesity and all of the diseases and disorders that go along with it, but even if we somehow managed to eliminate all of the foods some people consider junk, it wouldn’t solve the underlying issue of the overall unhealthy diets.

As I wrote two years ago,

Any food—even “healthy” foods like fruits can lead to obesity and other problems if they are over-consumed and not part of a balanced diet. What exactly constitutes “balance” must be determined by individuals. While humans all run on the same basic ingredients, our nutritional requirements vary widely throughout our lives. It’s a balance of these nutrients—not their source—that is important for overall health.

Food doesn’t simply feed the body, it fuels the soul. 

Food, as every culture recognizes, isn’t just about feeding the body. A piece of birthday cake, a bottle of wine with a friend, a few pieces of candy at Halloween—these wouldn’t be “healthy” if they were the only things you ate, but in moderation they are certainly part of healthy diet that feeds the body and fuels the soul. Beyond its nutrients, the pleasure a person derives from a food is value enough to preclude its being labelled as worthless “junk.” So, instead of acknowledging “Junk Food Day” celebrate “There’s No Such Thing as Junk Food Day” and recognize that nobody should be punished or made to feel guilty about partaking in the small indulgences that make life worth living.