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A little junk food is fine, right?

Jemma O'Hanlon

We look at why junk food is bad for our health

Woman holding take away food
Woman holding take away food

Junk food. It’s cheap, easy and whether you prefer it sweet, savoury or fried, it’s hard to resist.

Nearly four out of five Australians eat too much junk food (and this includes drinking alcohol) every day. Also known as ‘discretionary’ food, junk food makes up more than a third of the total energy Australians get from their diet.

So why is junk food bad for you?

“Junk foods are highly processed foods that are nutrient poor and kilojoule rich,” says accredited practising dietitian Jemma O'Hanlon. “They often have high levels of saturated fat, salt and sugar, and come with a long list of ingredients that your grandmother wouldn’t recognise.”

At the opposite end of the scale to junk foods are whole foods. These are foods that have not
been altered or are as close to their natural state as possible – think: fresh fruit and vegetables, legumes, beans, wholegrains, seeds, nuts, lean meats and poultry, fish, eggs and milk.

“If we overdose on junk food, we miss out on key nutrients from whole foods and our health can be impacted,” Jemma says.

Related: Sweet little lies: sugar facts vs myths

Elderly man and young boy eating burgers

What foods are considered junk food?

The obvious examples of junk food are cakes, biscuits, chocolates, chips, lollies, savoury pies and pasties, fast food (including fried food) and processed meats. Sweetened drinks, sports
drinks and alcohol are also considered discretionary foods.

There are less obvious examples of junk foods that are marketed as being healthy, Jemma warns.

People often assume banana bread is a better choice because it contains bananas

“For example, people often assume banana bread is a better choice because it contains bananas,” she says. “But really, it’s not bread ­– it’s cake. The texture is like cake, the ingredients are those that form a cake, the nutritional value matches that of a cake, and
it tastes like cake.”

Even the supermarket “health food” section includes a host of junk food, Jemma notes. “Just because a product, let’s say a melting moment cookie, is gluten-free, it doesn’t mean that it’s healthy.”

What are the effects of eating junk food?

Day to day, too much junk food will prevent our bodies and minds from functioning at their best. But the longer-term effects of eating junk food can be very serious.

“We know that the consumption of junk foods is linked with many chronic diseases, including heart disease, type 2 diabetes, obesity and some cancers,” Jemma says.

Obesity, which is a key driver of physical disease and disability in Australia, is one of the more visible dangers of junk food. Some 67% of adult Australians and a quarter of children and adolescents are overweight or obese.

As well as the risk of diseases caused by junk food, the dangers of junk food can extend to our mental wellbeing.

“There are links between junk food and mental health, and there is more and more research now suggesting that a poor diet is linked with depression,” says Jemma.

Related: 10 foods that help lift your mood

How often can you get away with eating junk food?

Most of us won’t be able to get away with eating junk food on a regular basis, Jemma says.

According to the Australian Dietary Guidelines, the average adult should only have none to three serves of discretionary foods per day depending on their age, height and activity level.  

One 'serve' of discretionary food is equal to 600 kilojoules. So, one serve could mean:

  • Two to three sweet biscuits

  • Two scoops of ice-cream

  • 12 hot chips

  • A few squares of chocolate

  • Two slices of salami

Related: Healthy ways to eat your daily energy (kj) requirements

Should you give up junk foods completely?

Despite its health risks, junk food adds pleasure and variety to our diets and is often part of enjoying special celebrations with family and friends. So rather than completely swearing off it, Jemma recommends not getting into the habit of having junk food every day, and to start making small changes to your diet if you need to cut down on it.

“We need to enjoy and embrace whole foods most of the time, and keep our more indulgent foods for special occasions,” she says.

Tips for cutting down on junk food:

  • Swap it for a healthier option

  • When eating out, choose a restaurant that offers a lot of healthy options

  • Try to eat more ‘mindfully’ – avoid eating on the run and instead sit down and take time to enjoy your meal

  • Reduce your portion size

  • Find a basic cookbook and try cooking some healthy recipes from scratch.

If you’re still struggling to cut down, talk to your GP or visit an accredited practising dietitian for extra support.

Ready to start cooking a few delicious and nutritious meals from scratch? We can help! Check out The Check Up’s range of healthy dietitian and nutrition-approved recipes.

Please note: The tips throughout this article serve as broad information and should not replace any advice you have been given by your medical practitioner. 

Jemma O'Hanlon

Jemma O’Hanlon is an Accredited Practising Dietitian and Nutritionist who inspires Aussies to transform fresh produce into easy, delicious meals. She believes that if we embrace food with gratitude, enjoy our meals mindfully and maintain an active lifestyle, we can be healthier and happier. When she’s not in the kitchen Jemma loves to run and enjoys chilling at the beach.