The "Junk Food Is Healthy" Fallacy
It's become weirdly trendy for fitness influencers to promote junk food. Some even go so far as saying that you have mental issues and health problems if you're NOT regularly eating it. This is bonkers of course. But it's not surprising in an era where self-discipline is considered bad, obesity is good, and if you're not eating candy every day, you're a victim of diet culture.
But don't think of this as an anti-junk food article. Nobody wants to control what you put in your face-hole. The thing is, if you know more about what's going into it, you'll make better decisions and end up with a better body.
This isn't just about looks, though. It's about making leanness easier, and as a result, feeling better and getting healthier overall.
So should you be eating high-sugar, hyperpalatable food as many fit pros suggest? The only way to end the confusion is to arm yourself with information. Then compare how you do when moderating it and when abstaining from it.
The truth is, many people get away with ultra-processed food in their diets. So based upon their own experiences, they'll tell you that you ought to do the same. And sure, when you're physically fit, a moderate amount is benign. But it's not benign for everybody.
Plus, there's no such thing as a junk-food deficiency. Medically speaking, you're not deprived when you go without it. But thinking you are sure sounds like something an addicted person would say. Should health pros really be endorsing this sort of dependency? That's up for you to decide.
But if you've been finding ultra-processed food unhelpful in your diet, avoiding it won't physically harm you. So let's look at a few specific ways it can work against you and some strategies you may find helpful.
First, the semantics. Junk food, obesogenic food, hyperpalatable food, ultra-processed food, and other terms are fairly interchangeable. So for our purposes, I'm talking about food that's low in volume and nutrition but high in calories, simple carbs, and the worst types of fat.
However, not all "processed" foods are created equally - many can even be beneficial - and we'll get into those later. But just in case you need proof that junk food isn't healthy, here's some research:
- Ultra-processed foods are associated with obesity. (1, 2) Yes, there are studies on this in case you had any doubts.
- A big hit of sugar can drop your testosterone by 25% for a couple of hours. (3)
- The chronic inflammation caused by obesity reduces taste bud abundance and inhibits taste bud renewal. (4) In other words, the foods that make people obese will keep them there because, to them, healthy food is tasteless in comparison. Adapting their preferences for healthy food will be much harder since they can't renew their taste buds as easily.
- Ultra-processed foods and fast foods are positively associated with depression. (5, 6)
- Obesogenic food can alter the gut's microbiota. That microbiota, in turn, affects your cravings for more of the same obesogenic foods. (7, 8)
Ah, yes. I know. Those who promote junk food will say that you'll avoid all these problems by just eating it in moderation. And there's some truth to that. So let's talk about it.
Moderation is a lovely idea. Eat whatever you're craving, but avoid going beyond an amount that'll create a caloric surplus over the course of the day. Sounds reasonable.
But do ALL people who eat junk food stop wanting it immediately after they've reached their specific allowance? Obviously not. Many don't seem to get satisfied with small amounts of nutritionally-void foods. And if you look around, they're not in the minority.
If most people could eat hyperpalatable food moderately, they would. And if they did, would there be an obesity problem?
Overweight and obese people didn't get that way from having just a couple of Oreos with lunch or a single serving of ice cream after dinner once in a while. The very nature of ultra-processed food is what's making them want to overeat... and not by a trivial amount either.
Researchers recently examined whether ultra-processed foods affected overall caloric intake. (9) They had 20 subjects eat either an ultra-processed or an unprocessed diet for two weeks. Then the subjects switched their diets for another two weeks. So every subject followed both diets for two weeks.
The researchers then instructed them to consume as much or as little as they wanted. When eating the ultra-processed diet, subjects consumed 400-500 more calories per day than they did when eating an unprocessed diet. Shocker, right?
The goal of any junk food company is to make a monstrous profit, not to nanny your eating habits and make sure your intake is appropriate for your energy expenditure. So to make you want more, they add the most effective ingredients for the job: high fructose corn syrup, hydrogenated fats, etc. There's a clear incentive to make you want more. This isn't crazy talk. It's business.
Playing accountant with your food doesn't always override the instinct to keep eating more. Sure, logging calories and macros does lead to more mindfulness, but it isn't an appetite suppressant.
For many, it takes more willpower to stop eating the chips than it does to just avoid them altogether. And eating small amounts isn't very "flexible" if you struggle to do so moderately. It's more like a prison sentence. You get stuck in a cycle of wanting excess when you could've just eaten a more satiating alternative to begin with.
When it comes to appetite, I'm with Dr. Johnny Bowden, who said it like this:
"There are two ways to help control appetite naturally. One is to be extra careful about blood sugar fluctuations. The other is to eat high-volume, low-calorie foods. The enemy of dieting is cravings, and nothing fuels cravings like the blood sugar roller coaster."
Certainly, there are folks who don't keep craving ultra-processed foods after they've eaten their meticulously measured portion. But that's the whole point. Not everybody reacts the same way to food.
Your reaction to it can change depending on how you normally eat, how much muscle you have, your gut microbiome, your last meal, the state of your taste buds, how active you are in general, and your metabolism as a whole.
Let's say loads of new research comes out showing that junk food is completely inconsequential in the big scheme of things. In this case, awesome. It's just another source of calories. But those are still calories you could get from more satiating foods.
It's an old-school nutrition tactic called volumization. High sugar, highly-processed foods are usually lower in volume and take up less space in the stomach. So replacing them with "heavier" stuff means you end up feeling more satiated. If you're in a bulking phase or you're a big guy who literally needs 3000-4000 calories a day, then this advice clearly isn't for you.
Those who are good at volumization don't usually get their calories from donuts or candy bars that weigh next to nothing and come with a hefty caloric price tag. Their calories mainly come from foods that have higher water, fiber, or protein content. Think fruits and veggies, meats and potatoes, soups, stews, eggs cooked in every way imaginable, and high-protein snacks.
Ideally your diet is mostly natural, unprocessed foods, and ideally you're getting about a gram of protein per pound of body weight every day. These practices keep the appetite in check.
But a strict diet - free of anything processed - is impractical long-term for most people. There are processed foods that make healthful eating a lot more convenient and sustainable.
And if something prevents you from overeating later on, it can be beneficial even if processed. Such foods don't (usually) lead to overconsumption: sauces and condiments, deli meats, Greek yogurt, protein powder, artificially sweetened drinks, etc.
Sounds silly, but I like to think of these foods as "vehicles" and "lubricants" that merely highlight the main attraction of a meal: the protein sources.
A taco shell or rice cake, for instance, can be a "vehicle" for more satiating things. As for lubricants? Think sour cream, hot sauce, dressing, or marinara that you can add to more satiating things. These are just a few examples. And there are even "healthy" versions of such things.
But there's a big caveat here. If you can't naturally moderate these more-functional processed foods, they'll go from beneficial to burdensome. So know yourself. If you have a problem overeating something that's not traditionally considered obesogenic, then it's not helpful in your diet.
A lot of people get angry over sugar substitutes. But the invention of artificial sweeteners is a modern-day tool that helps a lot of us maintain leanness year-round without trying that hard. It makes food taste sweet at a fraction of the calories. And if you can avoid overeating such foods, they can be categorized as "functionally processed" in your diet.
I get it, though. It's trendy to bash something artificial. But stripping "real sugar" out of its natural packaging is also an artificial process. You're probably not eating the sugarcane stalks or sugarbeets from which it's harvested. So before you feel super pious about avoiding artificial sweeteners, Google the process that sugarcane juice has to go through (extraction, purification, filtration, crystallization) before it becomes "natural" sugar.
We add ingredients like sucralose, monk fruit sweetener, and stevia to foods to make them taste delicious. For some, it's an acquired taste, but at least it prevents the same feelings of "deprivation" that sugar-lovers complain about when they try to diet.
Do artificial sweeteners increase appetite? The newest studies say no, but pay attention to how it affects you.
Don't feel pressured to eat sugar-free stuff if it's not your cup of tea. But don't pretend like it's not useful in preventing the overconsumption of calories (for many of us), and therefore, obesity.
Fruit is nature's candy. It's sugar surrounded by water, fiber, and polyphenols. If you find yourself craving a bowl of berries, an apple, an orange, or any other fruit, it's a good sign. It means you can still get pleasure out of these things that are nutritionally beneficial and lower in calories (and glycemic load) than ultra-processed junk food.
People who indulge their every craving for high-sugar crap don't tend to love fruits and veggies. If you're accustomed to such food, you may have a different perception of sweet flavors.
An apple or banana tastes like dessert to healthy eaters. But it tastes bland to those who've destroyed their perception of flavor.
Do all people who eat ultra-processed food have a problem enjoying fruit? No. Those who are metabolically healthy often enjoy both sources of sugar: fruit and junk food. But these are often the same people who tell their overweight clients (who dislike healthy food) to continue eating the same junk food that has derailed their perception of flavor. (4)
It's ideal to get pleasure from healthy foods. This shouldn't be a controversial statement. And if your eating habits make healthy food taste unpleasant by comparison, then your diet isn't beneficial.
A cup of sliced strawberries is about 50 calories. A large apple or orange is around 100. And these things are higher in volume - meaning they'll take up more space in your stomach - than a serving of any brand of cookies you buy at the store. The portion control is nearly automatic.
Sustainable fat loss can be tricky because there are basically two diametrically-opposed camps. To get lean in a sustainable manner, figure out which one you can successfully stick with:
1 The camp that focuses on naturally suppressing the appetite with higher quality foods.
Pros: No calorie counting or consulting your phone at mealtime. No cravings for junk food once you adjust to going without. Easily sustainable if you volumize your diet with satiating foods. Lower exposure to inflammatory ingredients.
Cons: It's very possible to overeat "healthy" foods like nuts and cheese. You may have feelings of deprivation at first if you're accustomed to junk food.
2 The camp that focuses on including all foods but quantifies them in a caloric bank account.
Pro: You get to enjoy your favorite junk food. Counting every calorie and macro helps you learn a lot about your food choices. Counting increases mindfulness and awareness of how food affects you.
Cons: Counting every calorie discourages cooking with multiple ingredients, doubling your workload at every meal. Consulting your phone in order to eat is tiresome. Hyperpalatable foods may still leave you fighting off hunger and cravings (and you might give in.) Junk food isn't great for gut health and often makes healthy food less desirable.
Both ways can work. But if you've been faithful to one strategy for years and you're still overweight (or you can't control yourself around food), it may be time to try the opposite approach.
I've had success on both routes. And not in the, "it worked for a while and then I gained everything back" way, but in the way that makes you learn what best suits your preferences, energy, time, and overall health. And now I know that I don't prefer logging my caloric intake and that including high-carb, highly-processed foods in my diet doesn't make my life better.
The opposite may be true for you.
Either way, the ultimate cheat code for long-term leanness is trying something and learning from it, even if it ends up not being optimal for you. Make every dietary strategy you try a stepping stone to a better place.
- Li M et al. Ultra-Processed Food Consumption Associated with Overweight/Obesity among Chinese Adults—Results from China Health and Nutrition Survey 1997-2011. Nutrients. 2021;13(8):2796. PMC.
- Poti JM et al. Ultra-processed Food Intake and Obesity: What Really Matters for Health—Processing or Nutrient Content? Current Obesity Reports. 2017;6(4):420-431. PubMed.
- Caronia LM et al, Abrupt decrease in serum testosterone levels after an oral glucose load in men: implications for screening hypogonadism. Clinical Endocrinology. 2013 Feb;78(2):291-6. PubMed.
- Kaufman A et al. Inflammation arising from obesity reduces taste bud abundance and inhibits renewal. PLOS Biology. 2018;16(3):e2001959. PMC.
- Zheng L et al. Ultra-Processed Food Is Positively Associated With Depressive Symptoms Among United States Adults. Frontiers in Nutrition. 2020:7. PMC.
- Sánchez-Villegas A et al. Fast-food and commercial baked goods consumption and the risk of depression. Public Health Nutr. 2012 Mar;15(3):424-32. PubMed.
- Wolf G. Gut Microbiota: A Factor in Energy Regulation. Nutr Rev. 2006 Jan;64(1):47-50. PubMed.
- Alcock J et al. Is Eating Behavior Manipulated by the Gastrointestinal Microbiota? Evolutionary Pressures and Potential Mechanisms. Bioessays. 2014 Oct;36(10):940–949. PMC.
- Hall KD et al. Ultra-Processed Diets Cause Excess Calorie Intake and Weight Gain: An Inpatient Randomized Controlled Trial of Ad Libitum Food Intake.Cell Metab. 2019 Jul 2;30(1):67-77.e3. PubMed.