Nutrition Dilemma: What is the Impact of Junk Food?
Ask anybody what the impact of junk food on weight is and you will receive one of the two following responses: junk food causes malnutrition because it has a low nutritional value or junk food causes overweight and obesity because it is high in fact or calories. This perception is so widespread that is often held as a fact. And from this fact it follows that reducing access to and consumption of junk food is key to reducing malnutrition and/or obesity. Yet, if one looks at the evidence to date the picture looks more complex.
Junk food causes malnutrition. As globalization advances, junk food becomes more available for a variety of people across the worlds. Poor people in developing countries such as Latin America are increasingly consuming this kind food and substitute their traditional food with it. For anybody looking at the situation today the logical conclusions is that junk food and its low nutritional values account for why people are malnourished. When researchers however looked at this correlation in Guatemala it turned out that communities which shows high rate of malnutrition have also very low rate of junk food consumption. Furthermore, as the analysis of bones shows, malnutrition in Guatemala is a long standing problem which could dates back as far as to the Spanish conquistadores and therefore can hardly be exclusively attributed to the recent arrival of junk food.
Junk food causes obesity. This relationship is in most of the cases framed in the following terms: children, in particular those from poor and marginalized societies, gain weight and are more susceptible of being obese because it is easier for them to access junk food rather than more nutritious food such as fresh fruit and vegetables. Again when reasearcher looked at this relationship it turned out to be not as straightforward as it seems. Poor communities in the US have in fact access to fast food as much as they have access to other food outlets where healthier food is available. This finding disputes the thesis of a food desert according to which poor children chose to eat junk food because it takes less time to find it as compared to more nutritious food. What this finding does not dispute however is that despite different food might be equally readily available one could be significantly cheaper than other: if a soda costs less that water it is little surprise then if one would chose the former rather than the latter. However, this finding calls in question those calls for opening more food retail outlets where nutritious food can be bought: when cast in this perspective the problem becomes one of purchasing power rather than proximate availability.
In sum next time you think about malnutrition and obesity remember that junk food could not be the cause of malnutrition and that opening supermarkets in low-income area might not be sufficient to prevent people from becoming obese.