Are We Eating More Junk Food?

Dog with SausagesA new study in the September issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition asks an important question. Are Americans eating more junk food? Cutting right to the chase, the answer is no. Adults actually report eating less in 2018 than they did in 2011. Children haven’t changed their habits.

Adults are getting 13 percent of their calories from junk food. That’s down from 14 percent. For children, the number is 18 percent.

But there are a few important problems to note. One is that nutrition experts say we’re still eating too much of this stuff. Another is that we’re lacking consensus on a definition for junk foods. And then finally, of course, all we have to go on for this research is self reports. As the authors note, self reports can suffer from both random and systematic errors. At a time when people hear increasing messages about the problems with junk food, we worry that this may create bias that favors under-reporting junk food consumption over time.

NHANES Data from 2001 to 2018

Junxiu Liu and colleagues analyzed NHANES data from 2001 to 2018. For a definition of junk food, they used the same definition used for junk food taxes in Mexico, Hungary, and some local governments in the U.S. Lacking a scientific definition, a legal definition was the best option. Note that they left sugar sweetened beverages out of this analysis. It’s a whole subject unto itself.

They found interesting differences among segments in the population. For example, women consume more junk food than men. Mexican Americans consume less of it than Black and non-Hispanic White adults. Younger adults eat less junk than older adults. People with less education also eat less of it than people who have more education.

Depending upon the stereotypes you subscribe to, all of these observations might run counter to what you’ve been assuming.

Still Too Much

In a companion editorial, Melissa Jensen and Marlene Schwartz of the UCONN Rudd Center tell us that things are a little better with food in the U.S., but still bad:

“Although progress has been made to improve the food environment in the United States through some policies, more work needs to be done. It is important to recognize that no single strategy or policy is going to be influential enough to reduce junk food consumption to healthy amounts in the entire population. Instead, a combination of mutually reinforcing policies is needed to continue to move children and adults in the United States toward a healthier diet and improved health.”

Maybe the food environment is getting better. People are certainly consuming less sugar. But these improvements are not showing up in better health outcomes. Obesity prevalence keeps growing.

It’s worth considering that we might not fully understand what it is about our food environment that is promoting obesity. Maybe we’re pushing the wrong buttons.

Click here for the study by Liu et al and here for the editorial by Jensen and Schwartz. For another recent study with consistent findings, click here.

Dog with Sausages, painting by Wilhelm Trübner / WikiArt

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September 10, 2021

One Response to “Are We Eating More Junk Food?”

  1. September 11, 2021 at 7:54 am, Mary-Jo said:

    I wish I could take this study seriously. But, with so many foods considered ‘healthy’, with the proverbial health halos because of containing dark chocolate, nuts, high-fiber ingredients, more plant-based, less ‘sugar’, etc. and so on, BUT are actually STILL high in fat, simple sugars, sodium, calories, it’s very difficult to even suggest any decrease in foods of poor nutritional quality, except for calories and that doesn’t even consider the overconsumption of these ‘healthy’ foods.