Junk Food: Completely Avoid or not?

Everyone follows a certain diet – whatever low carb diet or low fat diet or others – see junk food as a danger and should be completely avoided. But junk food is available everywhere and it is difficult to avoid. So, the question is: Can I eat junk food in moderation or completely avoid it?

The answer of this question will be in the next lines.

Junk Food 101

While everyone’s definition of junk food may vary, most people agree it’s not the healthiest thing for you.

These highly processed snacks contain an abundance of calories — especially in the form of fat and sugar — and little to no vitamins, minerals, or fiber.

Examples include:

  • soda
  • chips
  • candy
  • cookies
  • doughnuts
  • cake
  • pastries

While these items typically come to mind when you think of junk food, others are not so easily identifiable.

Junk Food in Disguise

Many foods that are thought of as healthy are really junk food in disguise.

For example, fruit drinks provide vitamins and minerals but may also have the same amount of sugar and calories as soda.

Manufacturers market granola and breakfast bars as being free of high-fructose corn syrup and packed with heart-healthy whole grains.

Yet, these bars may contain as much added sugar — if not more — than a candy bar.

Similarly, manufacturers market gluten-free products — such as cookies, cake mix, and chips — as healthier options than their gluten-containing counterparts, even though both foods may have similar nutrition profiles.

Even naturally gluten-free products like certain juices, chocolate bars, and hot dogs are labeled as “gluten-free” to make them appear healthier.

Gluten is found primarily in wheat, rye, and barley, and only a small percentage of the world’s population must avoid gluten for medical reasons.

Addictive Qualities

Junk food is thought to be addictive.

These addictive qualities are centered around sugar and fat.

Sugar may stimulate the same brain reward pathways as drugs like cocaine.

Independently, sugar hasn’t been consistently shown to be addictive in humans, but when combined with fat, the combination can be hard to resist.

Studies observe that the combination of sugar and fat is more commonly associated with addictive symptoms — such as withdrawal or loss of control over consumption — than sugar alone.

A review of 52 studies found that the foods most associated with addictive symptoms were highly processed and contained high amounts of fat and refined carbs, such as sugar.

That said, regular or even intermittent consumption of highly-processed food has the potential to stimulate the reward and habit formation center in your brain that increases cravings.

This can lead to over consumption of junk food and with time, weight gain.

There is still much to learn about food addiction, which tends to be more prevalent among people who are overweight or obese.

Associated With Obesity and Other Chronic Diseases

Obesity is a complex and multifactorial disease — with no one cause.

That said, the ease of access, high-palatability, and low cost of junk food is believed to be a major contributor, along with other conditions such as heart disease and type 2 diabetes.


Junk food has a low satiety value, meaning it’s not very filling.

Liquid calories — soda, sports drinks, and specialty coffees — are one of the worst offenders as they can deliver hundreds of calories without affecting your appetite.

A review of 32 studies found that, for every serving of sugar-sweetened beverage consumed, people gained 0.25–0.5 pounds (0.12–0.22 kg) over one year.

While seemingly insignificant, this can correlate to several pounds over the course of a few years.

Other reviews have noted similar results suggesting that junk food — especially sugar-sweetened beverages — are significantly associated with weight gain in both children and adults.

Heart Disease

Heart disease is the leading cause of death worldwide.

Sugar intake is one of several risk factors for this disease.

Added sugars have been shown to raise a specific type of fat in your blood — called triglycerides — and increase blood pressure, both of which are major risk factors for heart disease.

Regularly eating fast food has also been found to increase triglycerides and reduce HDL (good) cholesterol — another risk factor for heart disease.

Type 2 Diabetes

Type 2 diabetes occurs when your body becomes insensitive to the effects of insulin, the hormone that lowers blood sugar.

Excess body fat, high blood pressure, low HDL (good) cholesterol, and a history of heart disease or stroke are leading risk factors for type 2 diabetes. Junk food consumption is associated with excess body fat, high blood pressure, and low HDL cholesterol — all of which increase your risk of type 2 diabetes.

The Harms of Diet Obsession

Though it’s important to know which foods can contribute to poor health and weight gain, constantly obsessing over food is unhealthy.

Classifying foods as clean or dirty, or good or bad, can lead you to form an unhealthy relationship with food.

One study found that following a strict, all-or-nothing approach to dieting was associated with overeating and weight gain.

In other words, people who restricted themselves had a harder time maintaining a healthy weight compared to those who were more flexible with their food choices.

Another study observed that strict dieting was linked to the symptoms of disordered eating, anxiety, and depression.

What’s more, people who dieted more strictly on the weekends were more likely to increase their weight in one year, than those who dieted less strictly on the weekends.

These studies suggest that overly strict diets that completely eliminate the occasional treat not only impede weight loss efforts but also negatively affect health.

That said, many people are increasingly taking a more flexible approach to dieting.

Using this approach, 80–90% of your calories should come from whole and minimally processed foods. The remaining 10–20% should come from whatever you like — be it ice cream, cake, or a chocolate bar.

This approach also allows you to enjoy holidays, special events, or social outings without having to obsess over whether you’ll be able to eat the available food.

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