Turns out junk food isn’t as bad for us as we thought

When it comes to eating healthy, it’s often seen as black or white, bad or good. The good side of things is often associated with organic foods, with fruits and veggies, complex carbs. The bad side tends to focus on one thing: junk food.

However, a recent study proves otherwise. There may in fact be a grey area when it comes to healthy eating, according to Cornell University’s Food & Brand Lab. This team analyzed nearly 6,000 people’s consumption habits for this project. They then compared this data to their body mass indices, which is an obesity indicator that calculates weight in relation to height. For this particular venture, adults with a BMI of 25 to 29.9 were considered overweight. A BMI of 30+ placed them in the obese category.

Researchers stated, “While a diet of chocolate bars and cheeseburgers washed down with a Coke is inadvisable from a nutritional standpoint, these foods are not likely to be a leading cause of obesity.” In other words, they’ve found that junk food consumption is not connected to one’s body mass index when looking at 95% of the population. The numbers are there, and they’re telling.

In fact, the Food & Brand Lab found that overweight, obese, severely obese, and morbidly obese individuals (with a BMI of 44.9 or more) consume less salty snacks, sweet snacks, and soda than underweight and average-weight Americans. The only anomaly is that the former did eat 50% more French fries than the latter.

Overall, researchers believe that people should not completely avoid their favorite junk foods because this is not directly related to their weight. (As for French fries, it seems that these should not be consumed on a day-to-day basis. Probably something we already kinda knew.)

In truth, the real problem lies in this: the amount of calories one consumes eats versus the amount one exercises. So, it all boils down to calories in, calories out. In 1970, Americans ate around 2,039 calories per day. However, in 2010, this number increased to 2,544, which means that we should be exercising even more to accommodate for this change. And there are calorie-dense foods with should be limiting ourselves.

For instance, there’s white bread, which humans consumed 409 daily calories of in 1970 versus 582 calories in 2010. Sugars: 333 calories versus 367 calories. And oil/dairy fats: 346 calories versus 589 calories.

You know those health campaigns that are working to put a stop to obesity? Yeah, it turns out that they may be way off when encouraging audiences to eat less of certain foods. “If we want real change, we need to look at the overall diet, and physical activity,” explains professor David Just. “Narrowly targeting junk foods is not just ineffective, it may be self-defeating as it distracts from the real underlying causes of obesity.”

Clinical psychologist Julie Barnes also mentions that portion control is key. And eating out could negatively be affecting an individual’s self-control. When Americans go out to eat at a restaurant, they consume, on average, 200 calories more than when they prepare their own meals at home. However, in all respects, Barnes advises that we do not become obsessive over food. She states, “Over-control leads to lack of control. Just have the cookie.”

However, not all agree that we should stop focusing on eliminating junk food from our diets. Besides our weight, unhealthy foods affect our bodies in other ways. A study published on PubMed.gov states that the consumption of junk food (such as fast food and processed treats) has a direct correlation with an individual developing depression.

Furthermore, it’s problematic to say “junk food isn’t bad for you,” because that’s not exactly true. If you consume an avocado (typically around 230 calories) vs. five Chicken McNuggets (also around 230 calories), you’re eating the exact same amount of calories, but you’re also consuming a more nutrient-dense food.

Furthermore, foods like Chicken McNuggets (and many other kinds of junk foods) contain trans fats, which have been proven to clog arteries and increase the risk of stroke and heart attack. There’s also research that shows french fries, potato chips, and sugary drinks leading to an increase in weight over time.

Of course there’s the bigger, socio-economical issue: it’s cheaper to buy a 20-piece Chicken McNugget meal than it is to buy several avocados. Furthermore, according to TIME, “Past studies have found that socioeconomically disadvantaged people and others in high-stress situations with little social support are at much greater risk for both addiction and obesity.”

The bottom line? We need to pay attention to what we’re putting into your bodies. While completely depriving ourselves of junk food hasn’t been shown to be an effective strategy when it comes to weight loss, we probably shouldn’t be munching on fast food every single day. As they say, moderation is key.

[Image via Shutterstock]

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