Food & Fitness

Junk Food vs. Indulgence

Nazarina asked an interesting question on my Super Bowl Feasts post, which I thought was one worth addressing in a post all on its own:

Do you ever eat junk food (maybe just during a moment of weakness)?

To answer this question we have to think about what constitutes “junk food”. I think we all have different definitions for the phrase, and often “junk food” is associated with indulging in our guilty pleasures. I don’t like making that association. Maybe it’s the rhetorician in me but “junk food” implies just that; junk. If I’m going to eat food that isn’t particularly nutritious for me, it’s likely because I really enjoy the taste, and in that case I want to give it a more glamorous term. Like “indulgence”.  Again, the line between “junk food” and “indulgence” is going to be in a different place for each of us, and that’s my question for you today:

What does “junk food” mean to you?

My idea of junk food tends to be food which is going to do more harm to me than good. Indulgences are foods that have some nutritious value but with “added” potentially unhealthy aspects. For example, homemade apple pie is an indulgence. Apple pie from McDonald’s is junk food. Oil-popped popcorn with salt and butter is an indulgence. Movie theater popcorn, junk food.

I consider soft drinks junk food. Bakery goods are generally indulgences. Anything from a fast food joint is junk food to me. However, if I’m eating out at a local diner or a pub, the burger or fries typically becomes an indulgence. This has more to do with my personal associations and labels than anything else.

Without really knowing all that much about it, I have become very much an advocate of the Slow Food Movement. If I’m faced with the choice of having either homemade white bread or store bought whole wheat bread, I’m more likely to choose the homemade bread, even if its white. I have come to associate healthy indulgence with the homemade and the local cuisine. Junk food is processed or packaged, sometimes from a chain restaurant, or has chemicals in it. Junk food makes me feel ill or bad and it’s not worth it for the taste, whereas indulgences are absolutely worth it. Of course, the implication here is that mood can also have an affect, which means that sometimes the line between junk and indulgence gets a little fuzzy.

So to answer the question posed to me of whether or not I eat junk food, the answer is that typically I do not. It’s rare you will find me eating chips or a pre-made meal and so forth. But the reason for that is because I indulge a lot. I go out for breakfast or dinner a couple times a week to local restaurants; I can pack away meals like nobody’s business. I like snacking a lot throughout the day, so I try to make those snacks healthier choices- excessive amounts of peanut butter or popcorn are high on the list! (I compensate not eating junk food by eating larger quantities of indulgences. Not that that is necessarily logical). My mum frequently makes whole apple pies or crumbles and sends them home with me, so I’ll indulge in a piece or two of that pretty much every day until its gone.

Also, just because I don’t actively go out and buy these things myself doesn’t mean I won’t accept them as gifts! Just this morning a family friend brought a pumpkin scone and a London Fog tea from Starbucks for me to work, which I am eating as we blogspeak. This is pure indulgence 🙂

I do not eat out when I am alone. That, I think, can be the key to trying to be healthier. I bring my own tea wherever I go so I don’t have to stop at a cafe and be tempted by the fancier drinks and baked goods. I’ll enjoy those things at social events or as gifts from other people; when I’m by myself, I just don’t think that it’s worth it.

But that is my personal understanding of what junk food is. What does the term mean to you?

If you haven’t already done so, add in you $0.02 about exercising preferences by answering this poll!


  1. Kristen

    I really love your take on junk food vs. indulgence, and without giving it the same names, I realized that’s exactly how my attitude is toward food. Some food is simply not worth it, and that’s junk. Indulgences are food you savor.

    I’ve also become more interested in the Slow Food Movement as well. I enjoy shopping for foods at a local farm market and talking to the farmers more than buying produce from the supermarket. It makes the whole experience of shopping, cooking, and eating more pleasurable.

  2. Rupal

    I feel like we have similar philosophies on food. You’re right though, it’s all about the labels. Right now I’m praying that hubby brings me cupcakes back from the states from my fav bakery. If I get them, I may ‘indulge’ (devour) for a week or so. Can’t wait!!

    Have a good weekend Sagan


  3. Sagan Morrow

    VeggieGirl- am in agreement:) Happy Friday!

    Sharon- pastries are so tasty. Homemade tastes better than packaged stuff, too.

    Kristen- it really does make it much more pleasurable. There’s a connection to your food.

    Maggie- yep 😀

    Rupal- mmmm love cupcakes. I have a cupcakery not too far from my house; cutest place ever!

  4. Dara Chadwick

    Hmmm…interesting question. One might consider ice cream to be junk food, but indulging in a delicious serving of gourmet, hand-made ice cream hardly seems like junk, you know?

    I think you’re right that it’s important to distinguish between indulgence and junk food.

    When I’m making food decisions, I try to remember the wise words of my dietitian. If it’s something I can get any old time, like potato chips or a ho-hum brownie, it’s probably not a worthy indulgence. Then again, I’ve learned that if I really want a ho-hum brownie, I should go ahead and have it. Life is short and I can always make up for it later :-).

  5. Mary Anne in Kentucky

    Now that my Aunt Alice is dead, I doubt that I’ll ever eat white bread again. (She was a superb cook, and could even make white bread that I liked.) Apart from that, I agree with defining junk food as highly processed, but I have to broaden it to include anything not cooked by me or someone I know and trust. Because of my food allergies I seldom eat out, so good restaurant food is not an indulgence but a rarity.

    Mary Anne in Kentucky

  6. cammy

    Interesting distinctions! I especially like the popcorn breakdown. 🙂

    For me, junk eating has as much to do with quantity as content. A Twizzler or two on an otherwise healthy-type food day is a splurge. A *package* of them is junk. A snack-sized package of pretzels with my tuna-on-whole-wheat is a splurge; a ‘big grab’ bag with a burger is junk.

    I shoot for that 85-95% wholesome target. 🙂

    Have a great weekend, Sagan!

  7. Fitness Surfer

    When i eat “junk food” i only do it because it taste delicious and i truly enjoy every minuet. It’s only when i over do it and feel sick that i recognize that i need to re-think that choice the next time i grab the third browning…or a fast-food hamburger =)

  8. the Bag Lady

    Great post, Sagan. Love your take on junk food vs indulgence.

    I rarely eat at fast-food joints – and hardly ever eat at restaurants. Most of what I consume is what I have grown and prepared myself. Slow food.

    I even make my own potato chips occasionally!

  9. snackpak

    Hey Sagan! I JUST now realized you were following me on Twitter and I wanted to let you know I’m now reading your blog! And I feel the same way about junk food in general — I just gave up Diet Soda this year and I’ll be honest, I’ve been cranky because of it a few times so far. But I do love the occasional cookie, ice cream, sweets, etc…and I’ve been doing a wee bit too much of it, as I’ve been painfully admitting on my blog. ANYWAY, there’s my two cents. I’ll check in again soon!

  10. julie

    I kinda agree with you. I do eat junk, maybe a soda or three a year (usually on a plane), and I like potato chips on my veggie burgers. I also try not to indulge too much, as I still have 20 pounds to lose.

  11. strongandhealthy

    Love this post!

    My “junk food” is pretzels, crackers, cereal, etc. Those are the foods I tend to go overboard on. I’m not a big cookie, cake, etc. kind of girl.

  12. Sagan Morrow

    Dara- the difference for me with the ice cream is that store bought is junk; gourmet homemade ice cream is indulgence. Excellent point, too- we might as well indulge in the things we rarely have, BUT if you really want that ho hum thing, then its better to have that than eat everything but.

    Mary Anne- interesting addition… food allergies or special diets would definitely have an affect on your view of junk! I imagine quite a fair amount of what I eat would be perceived as junk by people on a low carb diet or something.

    Cammy- I think you’ve got a great way to do it. I’m terrible with following portion sizing, that’s why it doesn’t factor in so much when I consider junk. I’d rather eat too much of something semi-healthy than have just a taste of something processed. (I never said it was logical!)

    Fitness Surfer- ha yes, an indulgence can turn into junk food partway through the eating!

    Bag Lady- you’re my hero.

    Snackpak- thanks for reading:)

    Julie- I think you’ve hit something else too, in that context is a big part of it. What might be an indulgence on a plane might be junk food at home.

    Westwood- hurray! 😀

    ttfn300- with your kind of cooking I don’t expect junk food would be so very tempting at all hehe.

    Strongandhealthy- how about chocolate covered pretzels? Yum.

  13. Nazarina A

    Wow Sagan I did not mean to cause an uproar! ha! ha!

    That is why I make almost everything from scratch and 99 percent of the time it is organic and fresh ingredients. I can afford to cook everyday, because I made the choice of staying home. I know that it is hard for most families to prepare dishes at home everyday! My family too will rather dine at home than eat out. We always think the unthinkable of what happens to the preparation of our food! I like to control what goes into our bodies. Next time I shall have to elaborate a little more!!!

  14. Juliet

    Wow. I can tell you put a lot of thought into defining junk food for yourself. Very insightful! For me, it is all about the ingredients in any particular food item. I’m pretty strict about what I’ll eat and not eat, but I’m obviously open to more processed foods that some healthy eaters. I try to keep them to a minimum on a daily basis though (like one snack or one meal). Thanks for motivating me to think about this!! 🙂

  15. Crabby McSlacker

    I eat junk food–not often, but I grew up with it, have happy emotional associations, and figure it’s part of (for me) a balanced life. Sometimes a bowl of ice cream or a lardy, sugary grocerystore piece of cake makes me really happy.

    I also have “idulgences” that may have sugar or saturated fat but have other redeeming nutritional qualities. I eat these more often, but still try to keep them in check.

    But I’m not above junk food! I just try to keep it a small part of my overall food intake.

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