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Junk food and your health

8-minute read

Key facts

  • 'Junk food' is food that contains high levels of fats, salt and sugar and lacks nutrients such as fibre, vitamins and minerals.
  • Reading nutritional information labels and following the Health Star Ratings system can help you make healthy food choices.
  • Understanding the nutritional value of the food you eat and being aware of advertising ‘tricks’ can also help you minimise your junk food intake.
  • Consuming junk food can lead to short and long-term health complications, including weight gain, diabetes and heart problems.

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)
  • alcoholic 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:

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 items in Australia. 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, in line with the Australian Dietary Guidelines, 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 and in small amounts. In general, most Australians eat too much junk food and should work on eating less of it, less frequently. 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 Australian 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.

NEED TO LOSE WEIGHT? — Use the BMI Calculator to find out if your weight and waist size are in a healthy range.

Why is junk food so appealing?

While we may feel that we enjoy junk food just because it tastes so good, there is a scientific explanation for why we want to have more of it. Our brain encourages us to seek experiences that we find pleasurable, including eating tasty food. This encouragement from our brain is known as the ‘reward’ system.

When we eat tasty food (including junk food) the reward circuit in our brain is switched on. This releases a brain chemical called dopamine. The chemical rush floods the brain with pleasure and so the brain creates more receptors for dopamine in response. In the same way that people with a drug or alcohol addiction require a bigger dose over time, you crave more junk food the more you eat it.

Does eating junk food cause health complications?

Eating an excessive amount of junk food can have a negative effect on your general health and wellbeing and can also reduce your ability to be active.

As well as causing you to gain weight, the other short-term effects of eating junk food include:

  • increased stress levels
  • fatigue
  • difficulty sleeping
  • deceased energy levels
  • concentration difficulties
  • feeling down
  • tooth decay

In the long-term, eating junk food can lead to:

  • type 2 diabetes
  • heart problems (such as cardiovascular disease)
  • osteoporosis
  • obesity
  • certain cancers
  • high blood pressure
  • high cholesterol
  • depression
  • eating disorders

These complications are all associated with a diet high in sugar, salt, trans and saturated fats and with a lack of essential nutrients like fibre, vitamins and minerals.

ARE YOU AT RISK? — Are you at risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease or kidney disease? Use the Risk Checker to find out.

Other questions you might have

Q: Is fast food always junk food?

A: Yes, fast food is always classified as junk food, due to the high saturated fat and salt content in these foods.

Q: Is it more expensive to eat healthily?

A: Eating healthily doesn’t have to be expensive and can even save you money if you cut down on junk food purchases.

  • Plan ahead and make a list you can stick to in the supermarket.
  • Shop smart – buy what’s in season and what’s on special.
  • Use the fresh produce you already have at home first before buying more.
  • Meal prepping means you can buy and cook in bulk, which will save you both time and money.
  • Only buy what you need.

Resources and support

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Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: January 2021

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