What is junk food?
‘Junk foods’ are foods that lack nutrients, vitamins and minerals, and are high in kilojoules (energy), salts, sugars, and fats. Junk food is so called because it doesn’t play a role in healthy eating, especially if it’s eaten to excess. Junk food is also known as discretionary food or optional food.
Some examples of junk food include:
cakes and biscuits
fast foods (such as hot chips, burgers and pizzas)
chocolate and sweets
processed meat (such as bacon)
snacks (such as chips)
sugary drinks (such as sports, energy and soft drinks)
If your diet is high in fats, salt and sugar and is not receiving essential nutrients, your risk of obesity and other chronic (long-term) diseases may well increase.
These diseases include:
type 2 diabetes
non-alcoholic fatty liver disease
a number of cancers
While finding healthy alternatives to junk food can sometimes be difficult, the Health Star Rating system is a convenient tool to help you determine how healthy a product is. It provides a quick and easy way to compare similar packaged foods.
Packaged foods are rated between half a star and 5 stars based on how healthy they are. These ratings are found on the front of packaged items. However, it is important to note that this system is very generalised and the nutritional value of some products may not be accurately expressed through the rating they receive.
Remember also that the Health Star Rating system is designed only for packaged products sold in shops, so it won’t include some healthy foods — including fresh unpackaged food such as fruit and vegetables.
How do I make healthy food choices?
It’s important to understand the nutritional value of the food you are buying. You can do this by reading the nutrition panel found on the back of all packaged . Food labels can tell you things like the amount of energy (kilojoules), protein, fat, carbohydrates, sugars, fibre and sodium in each product as well as the recommended serving size.
When assessing a product for its nutritional value, make sure you double-check health claims such as ‘low in fat’ or ‘sugar free’, as these can be misleading. When a product is advertised as ‘light’ or ‘lite’, this may refer only to the product’s colour or flavour. This means that the product may still be ‘full-fat’ — be sure to check the nutrition information panel at the back of the package for the actual fat content.
Another common claim is that a product is ‘sugar-free’ or has ‘no added sugar’. In truth, this means that a product has no added sucrose or table sugar, but it may still contain other types of sugar. The product may also contain salt or fat and may be high in kilojoules, so even sugar free products can be junk foods.
Note also that products known as ‘health foods’ such as some fruit juices and muesli bars can actually be junk food if they contain high levels of sugar, salt or fat. Check a product’s Health Star Rating for a better indication of how healthy the product is. Keep in mind that this rating system is limited in accuracy, but may be a better guide than advertised claims.
Can I include a small amount of junk food in a healthy diet?
Yes, a small amount of junk or discretionary food can be included in a healthy, balanced diet. This means you should only have junk food occasionally. It is important to balance your junk food intake with increased exercise to help burn off extra energy. This will help you avoid gaining excessive weight.
If you are short, small, overweight or don’t participate in a lot of physical activity, junk food may not have a place in your diet — or at least the amount you consume may need to be minimised. If you are trying to lose weight, minimise the amount of junk food you are consuming.
Check the Dietary Guidelines to help you decide whether you need to improve your diet and to guide your food and drink intake.
How can I reduce the amount of junk food I eat?
While it can be challenging to reduce the amount of junk food you eat, you don’t necessarily have to give up on all your favourite foods.
Here are some suggestions on how to create healthy eating habits:
Plan your meals and snacks ahead of time so you decide what you eat based on nutrition, not based on what is left in your pantry. Planning ahead also helps you keep to a budget and makes shopping easier too.
Chose wholefood options such as wholemeal and wholegrain carbohydrates like pasta, bread and flour.
Choose fresh fruit for dessert instead of junk food to keep away from added salt, sugar and saturated fat.
Check your food’s nutritional value using the nutritional information panel on the back of the packet.
Watch out for advertising ‘tricks’, including claims that a product has ‘no added sugar’, since it can still be high in kilojoules, salt or fat. A product can claim to be ‘reduced in fat’ as long as it has less fat than an earlier version of the product — but it may still be high in fat.
Use the Health Star Rating system to compare similar packaged items and choose the healthiest one.