Happy There’s-No-Such-Thing-as-Junk-Food Day!

Whomever it is that decides the dates for the ever multiplying obscure holidays apparently designated today, July 21, as “Junk Food Day.” While the origin and intended purpose of the day is a mystery, it’s a good opportunity to address the myth of junk food. I say myth because junk food is an oxymoron; there’s no such thing. 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.”

Over the last year, the news about the so-called obesity epidemic in the US gives one reasons to be cautiously optimistic. Headlines have declared that abdominal obesity rates among kids are “levelling off” and studies show that folks with higher BMIs may not necessarily be at greater risk of dying from heart disease than those with “normal” BMIs. But that hasn’t stopped self-styled health advocates from declaring that we’re “losing the war” on obesity and calling for greater restrictions on what, where, and how food can be sold or advertised.

Whether it’s warning letters on soda, junk food taxes, pressuring food makers to reduce ingredients like salt or caffeine, or restricting sales and increasing prices on alcohol, proposals by public health advocates have one thing in common: people are not smart enough or strong enough to consume in moderation foods and ingredients that can make up an unhealthy diet when over-consumed. Which foods they consider “junk” are based on “accepted wisdom” about what constitutes an unhealthy food. However, the track record for these advocates as well as government agencies in implementing “accepted wisdom,” about nutrition is less than stellar.

Fat: In the 1980s, responding to the flawed research that connected dietary fat and cholesterol with increased heart disease risk, activist organizations like the Center for Science in the Public Interest and the National Heart Savers Association campaigned against food manufacturers’ for “poisoning America” with saturated fat and encouraged them to switch to trans fats (or partially hydrogenated oils) which were believed to be healthier. After listening to these advocates and switching to trans fats they are once again under attack by the same groups. Instead of waiting for the manufacturers to find a better alternative these advocates, with the help of the FDA, are attempting to ban artificial trans fats, once again failing to consider what will replace trans fats. As Daren Bakst at Heritage noted in his paper on the topic, “the FDA could very well be creating more health problems that it would allegedly be solving.”

Carbs: It is the USDA’s food pyramid, with its emphasis on carbohydrates that some believe caused or at least exacerbated the rise in obesity. The pyramid stems from the flawed work of Ancel Keys, and his “lipid hypothesis,” a criticized theory that supposed a direct and causational relationship between the consumption of cholesterol and fat and the development of arteriosclerosis. Despite being advised by experts that the government’s 1977 Dietary Goals report was “nonsense,” public health advocates at the USDA went ahead and used the “fat bad carbs good” notion when they created recommendations on a good diet, culminating in the 1991 food pyramid. To our credit, Americans listened—substantially reducing the amount of fat in our diets. Yet, the number of overweight Americans rose 61% in the decade after its introduction.

Salt: For years, health advocates, politicians, and government agencies like the FDA, and the CDC have been warning Americans and putting pressure on industry about Americans supposedly high sodium diet, which is believed to contribute to numerous health problems like hypertension, stroke and heart disease. According to the CDC the he average daily sodium intake for Americans is 3,436 milligrams, which is much higher than their recommended limit of 2,300 mg. Despite the fact that in May 2013 the CDC was forced to admit that its recommendations were wrong (and in fact that reducing intake to less than 1,840 mg could increase morbidity in some groups) government agencies haven’t backed off of trying to get Americans to reduce sodium consumption. In fact, they’ve doubled down, instituting a plan to force food manufacturers to “voluntarily” reduce sodium. As I have noted in the past, not only is their calculation flawed, but their efforts will have absolutely no effect on consumption rates. This is because of a very simple fact: sodium consumption is physiologically determined. That is, people unconsciously select foods that meet their body’s required level of sodium.

A 2009 study that analyzed urine samples in 19,151 people in 33 countries over a 24-year period showed that the worldwide average sodium intake was 3,726 milligrams a day, across diverse populations and diets, and with no evidence of change over time. In a 12-year study of more than 13,000 people from Switzerland, also published in 2009, people averaged around 3,680 milligrams a day. Despite evidence for a “spooky” level of consistency when it comes to sodium consumption, the FDA and food advocates think they know better than the entirety of humanity.

The mistake almost all public health advocates make is that they believe by controlling the consumption of a few foods or ingredients they can address complex problems like heart disease and obesity. In so much that these problems are food related, the cause is not any one food or ingredient, but an overall diet that is imbalanced. As Feldman and Marks put it:

There is no such thing as junk food. All food is composed of carbohydrate, fat, and protein. An intake of a certain amount of each is essential for a healthy life…Once the necessary amounts of carbohydrate, fat and protein have been taken, any long-term surplus is stored as glycogen or fat in the body. Protein is protein whether it comes from an Aberdeen Angus steak or a McDonald’s hamburger…one source of animal protein is not necessarily of better value to the body than another, nor is it more or less fattening. A diet consisting only of Aberdeen Angus steak would be as ‘junky’ as one composed only of hamburgers.

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. Furthermore, just because one food may not be as nutritious as another, it certainly doesn’t make it “junk.” 

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.