Nutrition Notes: The price of junk food

A new report on our eating habits reveals that almost a quarter of the calories we consume comes from nutrient-poor selections — better known as “junk food.” According to survey responses, soft drinks are the number one source of calories. They accounted for 7.1% of the calories consumed in 1999–2000. Altogether, the categories of soft drinks, sweets and desserts, and alcoholic beverages contributed 23.8% of the calories that these survey respondents consumed. Salty snacks and fruit-flavoured drinks added another 5% of calories. Since these foods are relatively concentrated in calories, you don’t have to eat a lot of them to increase your daily calorie total.

Another study looking only at youths aged 8 to 18 reports similar findings. Candy, table sugar, sweetened drinks, baked and dairy desserts, salty snacks, fatty foods like butter and gravy, along with some other nutrient-poor foods made up more than 30% of the calories these youths consumed. In fact, desserts and table sweeteners alone comprised almost 25% of the total calories. Furthermore, those who ate the most junk food tended to eat the least amount of nutrient-dense, healthful foods. They took in less vitamins A, B-6 and folic acid, as well as calcium, magnesium, iron and zinc.

A third study confirms that people who eat a lot of junk food suffer nutritionally. This study looked at the impact of salty snack foods, like potato chips, corn chips, crackers, pretzels and cheese curls. Those who ate the most of these high-fat salty snack foods had diets high in total and saturated fat and low in fruits and vegetables. The amount of sodium consumed by heavy users of both regular and fat-free snack foods also went well beyond recommended limits.

These three studies of nutrient-poor food consumption highlight several important messages. Between-meal snacks and drinks may be the best place to start substituting healthy choices and cutting back. Second, people who are overweight can still be undernourished. Eating more healthful foods may be an important goal for these people, too. Finally, these studies and others like them refute the commonly heard idea that as long as someone maintains an appropriate weight, junk food is OK. Eating substantial amounts of high-calorie, low-nutrient foods tends to be part of an eating pattern that ignores nutrient-rich vegetables, fruits, whole grains and beans. Even if you don’t gain weight with this eating pattern, it could increase your health risks, like the risk of cancer, by depriving you of protective nutrients and phytochemicals.

“Nutrition Notes” is provided as a public service by the American Institute for Cancer Research, 1759 R Street, NW, Washington, DC 20009