Is your kid a “Junk Food Junkie”?

On a typical weekday thirteen-year-old Sarah Martin immediately heads for the kitchen pantry when she gets home from school. She grabs a bag of cheese curls. Next she searches through the shelves for chocolate. A few hours later she eats dinner with her family. Grilled pork, yellow corn and green salad sit practically untouched on her plate. Before long she pushes away from the table. “I’m full,” she claims. Fifteen minutes later Sarah rummages through the pantry again. This time she looks for the jumbo chocolate chip cookies. Finding them, she grabs one and blissfully sinks her teeth into the gooey chocolate. Does this sound like one of your kids? If so, your child may be a “Junk Food Junkie”!

What is junk food?

The human body needs food to fuel its activity. Nutrients like protein, vitamins and minerals enable the body to grow, move and function well. Food like fresh fruit, vegetables, lean meats, low-fat dairy and grains are full of nutrients that efficiently fuel the body. They also contain the small amount of sugar and fat that the body needs.
Like Sarah, however, many people fill their bodies with junk food instead of nutrient-rich foods. Junk food is any type of food that has unhealthy amounts of salt, sugar or fat in it. The large amount of sugar and fat usually make junk food high in calories. It has few nutrients, which is why some people say that junk food has empty calories. Salty chips, candy, gum, cookies, cakes, ice cream, fried fast food and soda are some of the major types of junk food.

The rise in junk food

Less than a century ago most people cooked fresh foods at home. They rarely ate in restaurants. A convenient snack was a handful of fresh fruit or vegetables. In the last few decades, however, the eating habits of Americans have changed dramatically. Meals and snacks are quick, fast and processed. According to a 2004 study, 25 percent of the food eaten by Americans is nutrient-poor junk food. Kids are more likely to reach for a soda or fruit punch than milk or orange juice. Teens will grab a bag of potato chips or candy bar instead of cutting up raw vegetables for a snack. In fact, for many people the only “vegetable” that crosses their lips on a regular basis is french fries. “Junk food is ever present and inexpensive. Society today enjoys immediate gratification. So if any person—not even just a teen—has a dollar in their pocket and sees a package of chips in front of them, they’re likely to indulge,” says Laurie Beebe, a registered dietician who specializes in weight-loss management.

Health problems

This shift toward junk food, however, is linked to numerous health problems. Most junk foods contain large quantities of fats and sugars. While the body needs moderate amounts of fat and sugar to work properly, large quantities can be harmful. In the short term, junk food can make a person feel sluggish or nauseated. Over a longer period, a diet rich in junk food has been linked to several serious conditions and diseases like obesity, heart disease and cancer.

Kicking the junk food habit

To figure out whether you or your child is eating too much junk food, try keeping a food diary. For one week, record everything you or your child eats and drinks. After keeping track of food for a week, then think about the following questions:

  • How many times did you eat or drink junk food, fast food or soda? Compare that to the number of fruits and vegetables eaten during the week.
  • Is there a pattern to the junk food eating? Are there similar times of the day, like after school or during lunch, when junk food eating happened?
  • If the food was from a fast food restaurant, could healthier menu items have been chosen?
  • Take stock of the refrigerator and pantry. What types of food are available? Are there packages of junk food or trays of fresh fruits and vegetables?

Dietician Kristen Rudolph works with children and teens at the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh. She says “the easiest way to know if you are eating healthy is to count up the food groups at each meal.” Breakfast should have three—a protein, grain, fruit or vegetable. For lunch and dinner, adults and teens should choose a protein, dairy, grain and two fruits or vegetables. “Chances are if they are all there, you’re doing it,” says Rudolph.

Rudolph also says that simple tricks work best. She tells her patients to create a healthy plate at each meal. Half the plate should be full of fruits and vegetables, one quarter with lean protein and the last quarter with whole grains. She also recommends the 5-10 rule for snacking. Healthier choices should have less than 5 grams of total fat per serving and less than 10 grams of sugar per serving.

Sometimes, small steps are the easiest way to kick a junk food habit. “If someone wants to cut down on junk food, they should replace one or two things at a time instead of cutting out everything at once,” says teenager Jack B. Rudolph finds that changing drink choices is one of the simplest moves for her new patients to make. “Maybe it’s just cutting back on regular soda,” she says. With these small steps, even the biggest junk food junkie can make their eating healthier.