Junk Food: What Are We Eating and Why?

Soda consumption plummeting, but snacking on the rise
January 22, 2018 Updated: January 25, 2018

Junk food—it’s a term people use loosely, and it can mean different things depending on the person. Pizza may be junk food to some and a staple to others. So for the sake of clarity, let’s define junk food as items that are high in calories but provide little to no nutritional value.

Based on this definition, pizza provides the high calories and may or may not score in the nutritional category, depending on the ingredients and preparation. Foods and beverages that easily fit the junk food definition include foods high in sugar, such as cookies, cakes, pies, candy, and sugary soda; and high-fat snacks, such as potato chips, French fries, cheese crackers, and just about anything deep-fried.

Another characteristic of junk food is that it tends to leave you feeling hungry again not long after you consume it. This is especially true of sugary junk foods, which send you on a sugar high, only to let you crash soon thereafter. One of the biggest problems with junk food is displacement—people are eating them instead of healthy foods. Kids might grab some cookies and a soda after school, for example, instead of a banana and water.

Since the concept of fast food was first introduced during the 1950s, the types of foods that fall into this category have changed. Today, fast foods are considered to be “quick and easy substitutes for home cooking” and are “almost always high in calories, fat, sugar, and salt,” according to the National Institutes of Health.

In addition, fast foods are usually processed and laden with artificial flavorsartificial colorspreservatives, and other questionable additives. Items such as French fries, onion rings, burgers, chicken nuggets, fried fish and chicken sandwiches, doughnuts, and shakes are among the more popular fast foods.

You can, however, walk into a fast food restaurant and get salads, fruit, and some beverages that don’t fit this description. Therefore, while it’s true that many fast foods fit the junk food definition, some do not.

Who’s Eating It?

The latest available figures on fast food consumption from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey noted that

  • Adults consumed an average of 11.3 percent of their total daily calories from fast food during 2007 to 2010, which was a slight decline from 2003 to 2006 figures (12.8 percent)
  • Adults aged 60 and older consumed the lowest percentage of daily calories from fast foods (six percent)

Among children and adolescents, from 2011 to 2012

  • One-third of all kids and adolescents (2 to 19 years old) ate fast food on a given day
  • About 12 percent of children and adolescents got fewer than 25 percent of their daily calories from fast food
  • About 12 percent got more than 40 percent of their daily calories from fast food
  • Nearly 11 percent obtained 25 to 40 percent of their daily calories from fast food

Now let’s take a look at junk food consumption. Exact figures are difficult to pin down, but here are some estimates:

Chocolate and Candy: A survey of more than 24,000 American adults found that 75.5 percent consumed chocolate and other candies in 2011. The succeeding four years saw a rise in consumption to 82.35 percent in 2015.

Soda: The good news is, people are drinking less soda. Soda consumption in the United States is at its lowest level in 30 years and has dropped consistently for the past 12 years, according to Beverage Digest, a trade publication. According to a 2014 Gallup poll, 63 percent of Americans say they actively try to avoid drinking soda, compared to 41 percent reported in 2002.

People are still drinking sugary soda, however. A survey of American adults conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 17 percent drink at least one sugary soda per day, with rates varying widely across states. Consumption ranged from 12 percent among people in New York state to 32 percent in Mississippi.

Snacks: Nearly all Americans (94 percent) snacked at least once a day in 2015, according to market research firm Mintel. This figure is up significantly from 64 percent one year earlier. Exactly how much of that snacking involves junk food isn’t clear. However, the participant’s responses to survey questions are telling. For example, individuals who say they snack to satisfy a craving are likely not reaching for an apple or broccoli, as the foods people typically crave are sugary, fatty, or salty options.

Here’s what the survey found:

  • 50 percent of adults snacked two to three times daily.
  • 62 percent said they most often snacked to satisfy a craving.
  • 33 percent stated they are choosing healthier snacks than they did a year ago.
  • 29 percent of adults claimed that they snacked on healthy foods only, compared with 25 percent in 2008–2009.
  • About one-third limited how many sweet snacks they eat. This figure is higher among people age 70 and older (45 percent).
  • 24 percent of millennials (ages 21 to 38) snacked four or more times daily, and 23 percent snacked more now than they did a year ago.
  • 27 percent of millennials snacked when they were bored and 17 percent ate a snack when they were stressed.
  • Overall, 51 percent of consumers said the taste is more important than health when it comes to snack choices.

Health Implications

Given the overwhelming number of people who are overweight or obese, one has to wonder about these statistics concerning fast food and junk food. Many people say they are trying to make better food choices, yet 51 percent still said that taste is more important than health.

Another possible red flag is that 77 percent of those who ate snacks said that they wanted ready-to-eat snacks rather than something you have to prepare. Were they reaching for a banana or a bag of chips?

According to the NPD Group, a market research company that interviews 12 million consumers per year, snack foods consumed at main meals will increase about 5 percent over the next five years, or to 86.4 billion servings in 2018. They believe the strongest growth will be in what is known as “better-for-you” categories, such as fresh fruit, nutrition bars, and yogurt, which “consumers perceive as more healthful and convenient.”

Whether or not some of these foods are indeed healthful is questionable, as some so-called healthy products are havens for sugar and artificial ingredients. However, NPD has projected that ready-to-eat sweetened snack foods and desserts, which consumers are less likely to eat at main meals, “will be flat in the next five years.”

The wisest move for all consumers is to focus on fresh, natural, whole foods as much as possible, for meals and snacks, and to steer clear of fast food and junk food. If you do find yourself at a restaurant, party, or event where junk food is the main fare, look for the least offensive items.

Deborah Mitchell is a freelance health writer. She has authored, co-authored, and written more than 50 books and thousands of articles on a wide range of topics. This article was originally published on NaturallySavvy.com