Is it justified to label unhealthy food (aka junk food) as unhealthy?

I believe diet-related health problems stem more from unhealthy eating, than the so-called 'unhealthy' food itself?

We do unfortunately have the arbitrary category called 'unhealthy food', and stuff simply gets categorized there if we deem it blameworthy for ruining our health and our waistlines.

However, there's good reason to be optimistic if we go about the whole 'fit and healthy lifestyle' thing using an informed and commonsense-approach. 

Yes, you guessed right: 'sensible.'

What's commonly considered 'healthy food' and 'healthy eating' vs the unhealthy varieties, are topics I follow closely – and perhaps spend most of my time advising people on.

One of the most common questions directed at me is: "How do I diet?" 

It seems so many people are either 'dieting', or contemplating one.

unhealthy food: overreaction and confusion

Aside from not getting enough exercise, I believe we’ve forgotten how to eat.

And we're so bombarded by mass media hype, that we're confused. Either way, we often end up eating emotionally, and for the wrong reasons.

To make matters worse, society has developed a fear of getting fat; so much so, that we spend more time and money than ever before battling that very issue – instead of maintaining a sensible eating plan for life.

We go from the 'low carb diet', 'no carb diet', 'best lose-weight-fast diet' to the 'no-fad diet' to the 'weight gain diet', the 'keto diet' and so on.

What defies all logic and reason – is that the number of people ‘on a diet’ is growing, yet obesity levels and public health spending continue to rise at alarming rates.

FOOD INDUSTRY ONSLAUGHT BY THE MEDIA

Why has the food which was previously so institutionalized, become so ostracized?

There's no shortage of 'hype' in the press regarding the food and beverage industries.

Gone are the days when pizzas or burgers and fries (with a coke or a shake) were idealistic meals. This was food which we associated with good times. Today, these and many other food items are collectively viewed as the enemy – and lumped into that category we know as 'unhealthy food.'

Society once embraced this kind of eating. Now, we take the manufacturers and distributors of 'unhealthy food' to court. We threaten to boycott their outlets and ban their advertisements. I think consumers who lay blame in this knee-jerk manner are naive.

Of course, ensuring the quality-levels of specific ingredients is essential. By all means, let the consumer watch dogs loose, so they can monitor the manufacturing of processed foods – and the food industry as a whole.

However, many campaigns have caused widespread changes in so-called ‘junk food’ marketing because of claims that children are being targeted. To that I say:

"We as parents need be responsible and informed, in order to guide our children to make healthy choices and decisions."

There's been a lot publicity regarding advertising during kids’ television programs, and on what school cafeterias are dishing up. And while it's good to ensure our children are getting healthy types and portions of food for adequate growth and energy, it should not be overdone.

As Diane Abbott, British politician and former shadow minister for public health, puts it: 

"Families are struggling against a tide of junk information on junk food."

Also, banning advertising will not make 'unhealthy' food go away.

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Older kids see ‘forbidden items’ during their TV programs, and duly report to their younger siblings and friends at home or at school – so there's little sense.

Adults, on the other hand, can better reason the need to kerb or abstain from certain food – and should be more proactive and involved.

Limiting or having to avoid certain food is not easy for children to mentally process.

That is why some well-intended campaigns (at home or at school) could backfire on children.

Schooling is to be enjoyed – in association with positive feelings and experiences about food and eating.

Guide children early on

Let’s not forget just how impressionable children are.

Teenagers – girls especially – are vulnerable during adolescence as they work to establishing their identities and grapple with issues at home, school and within themselves as changing individuals.

Too much pressure or negative emphasis on food and eating (whether healthy or unhealthy), the types and the portions, and we run the risk them developing image issues or eating disorders.

Young children and adolescents alike, look to role models as they form their characters and seek social acceptance. They take development cues from idealistic values and commodities in their pop culture that are ‘IN.’ 

Pressuring children to conform, where food and eating are concerned, can wreak havoc on their emotions, whether this pressure is from peers, parents or from within. This is regardless of which choice is made in the end.

Recent studies in the age-group 8 to 13 years, have revealed dramatic increases in eating disorders. And we’re not done yet when we leave school, college or university.

These can come back later in life. Recalling unpleasant emotions associated with food and eating can lead to the development of eating disorders in adults. 

AT HOME, WORK AS A TEAM – try these tipS:

Doing the whole fitness and healthy food lifestyle as a team helps spread the motivation and keeps you honest.

Even if your group consists of only two people, there is strength in numbers.

If you live alone, set up an accountability-arrangement with a like-minded friend or family member. (You're both much more likely to succeed in this way.)

Let's look at 5 highly-effective practices:

  1. Get acquainted with 'what's' consumed in your household, and how. You can't expect a 'sane' situation if it's all left to chance. A little control, planning and collaboration does wonders;
  2. Read up and be mindful about nutrition. Help one another to instil good values from the outset (do not overlook physical exercise – it makes the whole food thing more manageable);
  3. Know what you're eating. Ask! Read labels! Most importantly, talk openly about it, especially if involves children. They can and should begin reasoning healthy eating habitsquite comfortably from as young as age 12;
  4. Become proactive where corrective action is necessary – something I reluctantly call a 'diet', whether it's you, or another household member in need of support;
  5. Use responsible strategies where change is needed. Return the situation back to a sensible eating plan as soon as possible to avoid the need for unpleasant and unhealthy 'yo-yo dieting.'

DINE WITH THE ENEMY... then together develop a HEALTHY long-term ALLIANCE

Here’s how:

  • Recognize that 'unhealthy' food (of either unbalanced, little or no nutritional value) exists in just about every society in the world – particularly on special occasions. This is NOT about to change;
  • For whatever reason: social, emotional, phycological or other – the omnipresence of junk food, fast food or trigger food 'can' lead to unhealthy eating in some cases. Adopt a sensible healthy attitude towards these 'undesirables' and enjoy eating them now-and-then. (Get advice on developing coping strategies and find out about how, correctly employed, trigger (or pleasure foods) can also serve you. They in fact have a role in the Sensible Fitness Program and, can help contribute to overall wellness. (I talk about the dangers of deprivation here.)
  • Do not simply label food as 'junk' because of the convenience in which it was obtained, or because it's in ready-to-eat format. Not all of what’s considered junk food is low in nutritional value or unhealthy. So many of us begrudge the same food we claim makes us unhealthy, merely because we gorge ourselves on it.
  • Make it your business to better familiarize yourself about food and healthy eating habits in general. Get involved with your household team to operate as a tight unit.
  • Be prepared to get your hands 'dirty' if a team-member stumbles and needs help with an issue. Be responsible, supportive and present.

BECOMe SAVVY and send the right message

I can't stress enough how important it is, to be informed about the broader health and nutritional issues we face when it comes to food.

That way, as a society, we can positively influence the food and beverage industries. As responsible and knowledgeable consumers, we can actually demand different, better or more suitable products.

In this way, vendors and franchises will be obliged to follow suit, or face going out of business.

It needn’t be seen as a threat, but rather a simple requirement through normal consumer-behavior.

We find in the supermarkets (or eating establishments) exactly what the vendors know we want to buy – healthy and unhealthy food.

They did their homework. They watched us. If we feel strongly opposed, we need to respond and buy or behave differently.

Only by becoming aware, can we actively voice these educated points-of-view to collectively influence society, as well as the food and beverage industries.

Remember, we pay good money for the food we eat. Let’s make it better so that we spend less on our health and medical bills, and put more of our well-earned money to better use.

IN CLOSING

It's not so much the 'type' or 'quality', but the overall 'quantity' of food you eat which matters. 

In fact, what people call 'unhealthy food' is not the only culprit responsible for making them fat.

You can actually stay slim or athletic all year round while eating junk food in moderation.

As dubious as you may be feeling, I'd bet you know of at least a few overweight people who pride themselves on eating 'healthy' whole unprocessed food.

It boils down to balancing your calorie-intake with your calorie-output. (See what makes up your total daily energy-expenditure.)

Unhealthy food by itself is not to blame for our weight problems.

FURTHER READING

REFERENCES

  1. Meltzer, S., & Fuller, C. (2005). Nutrition basics and nutritional needs. In The Complete Book of Sports Nutrition: A Practical Guide to Eating for Sport London: New Holland;
  2. Berardi, J., Andrews, R. (2009). Unit 6, The Macronutrients. In Nutrition: The Complete Guide, Official Course Text for ISSA's Specialist in Fitness Nutrition Program, 1st ed., International Sports Sciences Association;
  3. Fahey, T. (2006). Obesity in Children and Measuring Body Composition. In Youth Fitness Trainer, Official Course Text for ISSA's Youth Fitness Trainer Program, 2nd ed., International Sports Sciences Association;
  4. The impact of food advertising on childhood obesity. (n.d.). Retrieved September 15, 2015, from http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/eating-disorders-new-trifold/index.shtml