Healthy Eating

What is Junk Food?

It’s not word games. It is about being truthful with ourselves about what we need to be our best.

Updated 11/2020

This question was posed to me recently on a podcast, Gabby Road, on WCGO with Hannah, Fred, and Justin (#notsponsored).  Hannah and I first did a show together years ago when I was at Jewel-Osco and she was at ESPN, so I knew it was going to be a fun and important conversation – the best kind.

You can listen to our full episode here.

The “junk food” question comes up all. the. time. It’s especially prevalent in conversations at the turn of the year when people look at their lifestyle choices with fresh eyes and try to do better. (You don’t have to wait to make better choices but that’s another story.)

There is no junk food. Seriously. Hear me out. Everything we can eat or drink does something for us. Some choices just work harder to do what we need.

At the most basic level, we need calories to survive. “Junk food”, however you personally define it, does this. Is that good enough? No.

We need a variety of nutrients to thrive mentally and physically. If you eat the majority of foods that “just” have calories and not nutrition (often referred to as “empty calories”), you are wasting opportunities to do better for yourself.

How I think about it is party food, sometimes food, and every day food:

The party stuff is the decadent, maybe not the most nutrient-rich option.

The sometimes stuff is indulgent choices with a few ingredient swaps to boost nutrition and/or remove some calories that don’t really need to be there. Like adding broccoli to mac n cheese. Or using reduced fat mayo/cheese/dressing (notice I didn’t say fat free).

The every day stuff is the stuff that is what I call the workhorses of our food choice. You know, things that MyPlate food groups represent – the wonderful, delicious choices within each food group that provide multiple nutrients in every bite we take.
MyPlate has wonderful resources!

MyPlate looks simple intentionally. The cool thing is, it represents the complicated food science as we know it today. You’ve heard of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans? This little cutie is the visual to make all those recommendations easier for us to actually take action on.

You might be rolling your eyes. That’s ok. Bring it. I stand by this and here is why: we have options – so many options – because our agriculture community is awesome at what they do. People demand an affordable, abundant food supply. We have that here. We are faced with literally tens of thousands of options in grocery stores. It’s up to us to choose what we need from what is offered.

I used to do store tours. We had about an hour and a half to get through the store, have a useful tip for each area (food group), and practical skills to make shopping more efficient, easier to find what you need, and learn how to identify items that would support your personal health goals. Yes. All that in under two hours. So obviously, we didn’t talk about every single item.

Oftentimes, my sassier fun groups would say, Kim, why are we passing the cakes and donuts?

what you eat matters
Image by John Hain from Pixabay

Although it was mostly a timing issue, it was also on the list of party foods, so when this came up, I’d stop the group and say something like this: it’s someone’s birthday every day, so we sell birthday cakes every day. If today is not your birthday, you probably don’t need to be buying that birthday cake.

See what I mean?

It’s not word games. It is about being truthful with ourselves about what we need to be our best.

The best tip I can give you is, whatever you choose to eat, own it. Don’t “should” yourself, don’t try to trick yourself, and certainly, don’t let someone else who doesn’t have to deal with the consequences of your choices choose for you. If you want to eat something more decadent, make the choice, enjoy it, consider what else you are eating that day to balance the full day out, and off you go.

This is the start of a different year, a different decade, and (maybe) different choices. Picture yourself making different ones where you want and need to, enjoying it, and seeing a different outcome.

The thing is, if you keep doing what you are doing, you will be the same as you are. That might be just fine. If you want something else for yourself, try something new and know that it will be different. You can do it. After all, as of this year, we all have 2020 vision. 😉

By Kim Kirchherr

I am a dietitian working in food and fiber (agriculture) through retail, addressing opportunities to make things better for people and planet.

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