Recognizing and Avoiding Junk Food Kids Like to Eat

Boy with snack
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It is generally recognized that kids eat too much junk food. And experts warn that eating too much junk food is one of the factors that have contributed to the current childhood obesity epidemic. But do you know how to recognize junk food?

Junk Food

What is junk food?

Parents can usually recognize most junk food, such as candy, cookies, donuts, sugary breakfast cereals, ice cream, soda, and fruit drinks, but they often overlook other junk food that kids eat every day.

In addition to foods and drinks with a lot of added sugar, it is important to keep in mind that junk food can include foods high in salt or any energy-dense (high calorie) food that doesn't also having some nutritional value (empty calories), such as fiber, vitamins, and minerals, or protein.

And remember that junk food can become energy-dense from either sugar or fat and so in addition to donuts and candy, junk food can include many popular high-fat foods, including popular fast foods and snacks, such as:

  • Double meat hamburgers and cheeseburgers
  • Tacos (fast food)
  • Chicken fillet sandwiches
  • French fries
  • Milkshakes
  • Chicken pieces (fried nuggets or strips)
  • Nachos
  • Cold cuts, submarine sandwich
  • Pretzels, potato chips, and other snacks
  • Pizza slice (can be high in salt, in addition to fat, especially when you start adding meat toppings)

Junk food can include almost any high-fat or high-sugar food or drink and foods high in salt.

Recognizing Junk Food

Junk food is like many other things—you often know it when you see it.

It can be helpful to have a more objective measure of when something might be junk food, which you can spot by looking at a food label, including that it has little nutritional value and has:

  • more than 35% of calories from fat (except for low-fat milk)
  • more than 10% of calories from saturated fats
  • any trans fat
  • more than 35% of calories from sugar, unless it is made with 100% fruit and no added sugar
  • more than 200 calories per servings for snacks
  • more than 200 mg per serving for sodium (salt) for snacks
  • more than 480 mg per serving for sodium (salt) for entrees

You can also check the ingredients list of the food to spot many forms of junk food. In general, if one of the first two ingredients is either oil or a form of sugar, then it is likely a junk food. The presence of high fructose corn syrup in the ingredients is also often a tip-off to a food being a junk food.

One of the biggest dilemmas for some parents is recognizing when a food with some nutritional benefits is also high in fat or sugar. Is it still a junk food?

A milkshake, for example, is usually high in fat but would be a good source of calcium. Because low-fat milk is a readily available source of calcium without as many calories or as much fat, a milkshake would still be considered junk food by most people and should be only an occasional treat.

Avoiding Junk Food

To help your kids avoid junk food, you should encourage them to eat healthy snacks and more of the following foods that are usually considered to be a part of a healthy diet:

  • foods that are low in fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol
  • high-fiber foods, including whole-grain foods, vegetables, and fruits
  • foods that have only a moderate amount of sugar and salt
  • calcium-rich foods, to meet a child's daily calcium requirements
  • iron-rich foods, to meet a child's daily requirements for iron

You don't have to avoid all junk food all of the time though if you don't want to do so. The food pyramid even allows for some discretionary calories that we can all use to eat some "luxury foods," including those with fat or added sugar.

Keep in mind that most people's allowance of discretionary calories is very small, about 130 calories for a 5-year-old and 290 calories for a 10-year-old. People often overdo it—getting too many calories each day. The key to eating these junk foods is moderation. So only let your kids eat them occasionally. And when you do, get them small portions (small fries or kiddie-sized milk shake, for example).

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Article Sources
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  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Overweight and Obesity. Contributing Factors.
  • Institute of Medicine. Fact Sheet: Nutrition Standards for Foods in Schools.