I’m willing to bet your timelines are currently full of diet and exercise ads and content, all aimed at making you feel bad about what you look like and bad about what you are (or aren’t) eating. I’m willing to bet you’ve berated yourself more than once since January 1 over something you’ve eaten or something you really, really wish you could eat. And I’m willing to bet, more than once, you’ve said — either out loud or to yourself — that you need to stop eating junk food. So I want to let you in on a secret… There’s no such thing as junk food.
Yes, that’s right…
There’s no such thing as “junk” food.
Chips? Nope. Chocolate? Nope. Fast food burgers? Nope. Gas station hot dogs? Nope. Gummy bears? Nope. Sugar straight from the spoon? Nope, nope, nope, and nope.
There’s No Such Thing As Junk Food
Over the past little bit, I’ve been pretty candid about wanting to be fitter and also about staring down the black dog known as depression. Tomorrow marks a year to the day that my daughter had a tonic-clonic hyponatraemic seizure that brought us to the ER and a diagnosis of Anorexia Nervosa Sub Type: Restrictive. She spent a month in the pediatric ward of our local hospital and is close to finishing the the Eating Disorder Day Hospital program at our local children’s hospital.
The first step in treatment for Anorexia and most eating disorders is Family Based Treatment (FBT). This is exactly what it sounds like. The parents, under the purview of a Dr., a Registered Dietitian (sometimes, not always), and later, a therapist, are responsible for feeding their child back to health. Food is medicine. Therapy is pointless in the early stages because a starving brain is not responsive to it. The Eating Disorder is not your child but it will make them say and do some pretty terrible things. Adolescence is a time when parents are supposed to start giving more freedom and privacy and space. FBT demands that parents assume total control over their child’s life, starting with food.
Food is medicine. They need lots of it, and frequently. Three meals and three snacks per day, every day. Every bite, every meal is reason to feel hopeful but the Eating Disorder punishes them for it. It’s only with lots of food and lots of rest that the brain and body can heal. And until that starts to happen every bite, every meal is more reason for the Eating Disorder to punish and torment them.
Anorexia Nervosa is a biologically-based disorder. There are a number of mental and environmental factors that can make someone susceptible to it, but the switch is flipped by genetics. Time spent in a negative energy balance is usually what flips that switch. This is where genes come into play. Lots of people have disordered eating habits and are constantly on diets, but not everyone is Anorexic. Diet culture and fatphobia are not totally to blame but they sure don’t help.
But How Can There Be No Such Thing As Junk Food?
At its most basic level, food = fuel. Some people require more fuel than others to function in different ways. Assigning a label like “junk” to food gives one an excuse to restrict it. And I was a total culprit of this. Organic produce and free-range meat is wonderful but it is not “better” or “better for you” than regular produce or meat. It’s just grown differently. Pop isn’t evil and neither is fast food. We strive to eat a balanced diet and that means there’s room for everything, including sugar and carbs.
Got a kid that will only eat a certain brand of chicken nugget or beige foods? That’s not junk food. Those are very likely “safe foods” for a child who may be labeled as a “picky eater” and quite possibly by me until my kid had Anorexia. Now I know about ARFID and how making a big deal about what someone eats or doesn’t eat based on moral judgements can cause really big problems long term. Feed them what they will eat, get a multi-vitamin in, continue to gently encourage new foods, and keep your mouth shut.
But What About Medical Conditions?
Not Everyone Can Eat Everything!
Not everyone can eat everything, but that doesn’t make what they can’t or shouldn’t eat junk. If you have celiac disease, you can’t have food containing gluten. Food containing gluten isn’t bad or junk. It just contains gluten. Heavily processed foods aren’t junk, they’re just heavily processed. That balanced diet we strive to eat has room for everything, even candy, if we want. Your body needs a certain amount of water daily but that doesn’t mean pop is junk. Your body requires the nutrients from all kinds of food but there is also room for food that doesn’t have a lot of nutrients. That food is not junk.
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If you stop putting food in a hierarchy of goodness or badness or junk, you’ll realize the “bad-for-you” foods aren’t bad at all. They’re just another option.