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Junk food

7-minute read

Key facts

  • Junk food is unhealthy foods that are high in starch, sugar, saturated fat, trans fat and salt.
  • Most junk foods don’t have the nutrients that growing children need.
  • An occasional junk food treat is ok, but should be given in moderation.
  • Children who are overweight and not very active should avoid junk food as much as possible.

What is junk food?

Junk food is unhealthy food that includes sweet drinks, lollies, chocolates, sweet snacks, chips and crisps, crunchy snack foods, biscuits, cakes, most fast foods, pies, sausage rolls, jam and honey.

The food industry prefers terms like ‘extras’ and the Australian Dietary Guidelines call junk foods ‘discretionary choices’.

Why is junk foods not good for children?

Junk foods are high in starch, sugar, saturated fat, trans fat and salt, but low in fruit, vegetables, fibre and wholegrains. This means most junk foods don’t have the nutrients — vitamins, minerals and dietary fibre — that growing children need.

How much junk food should kids eat?

Children who are overweight and not very active should avoid junk food as much as possible.

Children whose weight is about right should eat more foods from the 5 food groups than junk food. Junk foods should never take the place of healthy foods needed for growth.

Children should not get into a junk food habit. Even if your child is slim and active now, they’ll need less food when they stop growing. However, an occasional junk food treat is probably ok.

Suggested serving sizes for junk foods

If your child is having junk food occasionally, a serve of 500 to 600 kilojoules is ok. This means:

  • biscuit (such as chocolate coated or caramel filling) — 1 (20g)
  • biscuits, plain sweet — 2 to 3 (35g)
  • cake — 1 small slice (40g)
  • chocolate — 5 squares (25g)
  • crackers — mini packet (25g)
  • fruit drink — 250mL
  • hot chips (take away) — 12 (60g)
  • ice cream — 2 small scoops regular or 1 scoop of premium brands (75g)
  • jam or honey — 2 tablespoons (60g)
  • muesli bar — 1 average (35g)
  • party pie — 1 (40g)
  • popcorn — cinema, 2 cups (25 to 30g)
  • potato crisps — half a snack packet (25g)
  • processed meats — 2 slices (50 to 60g)
  • sausages — 1½ regular or 2 thin (50 to 70g)
  • sugar lollies such as jelly babies or snakes — (20 to 25g)

Those servings are probably smaller than most people give.

Salt

Children need some salt in their diet for healthy nerves and muscles but too much salt can increase their risk of health problems.

Too much salt can cause health problems in people of any age, including young children. For example, excess salt increases the risk of respiratory problems, including asthma. It can also increase the risk of osteoporosis and high blood pressure later in life.

Salt also increases thirst. If you satisfy that thirst with sugary drinks, it can increase the risk of gaining too much weight.

About 80% of the salt you eat comes from salt in processed foods. About 20% is added in cooking and at the table. But you get as much sodium as you need from foods like milk, yoghurt, eggs, meat, fish and poultry. There is no need to add salt to babies’ food.

Fat

All children need some fat in their diets to stay healthy. It’s important to know where different fats are found, and how to make good choices.

Your baby’s first food is breast milk or formula. The fat in breast milk or formula is important for your baby’s growth.

For older children, fat gives your child energy and essential nutrients for growth and physical activity.

If you give your toddler cow's milk or other types of milk they should have full fat varieties until they reach 2 years of age. Then they should change to low-fat dairy products.

Some types of fat are essential for:

  • cells to function properly
  • healthy skin
  • getting enough of some vitamins
  • the development of the brain, nerves and eyes

But too much fat in your child’s diet can cause nutritional problems.

It can also put your child at risk of being overweight, as well as health problems later in life such as heart disease and stroke.

Different types of fats

Some fats are useful in the body. Others can be a problem. It’s important to learn about the different kinds of fats to make healthy diet choices.

Saturated fats

Saturated fats are found mainly in meat and dairy products. Small amounts of these foods, as part of a healthy diet, are unlikely to cause problems, and they have important nutrients. Lean meats with the fat cut off and skin removed are healthier than fatty meats.

Saturated fats are also found in many processed foods including:

  • biscuits
  • cakes
  • chips
  • crisps / chips
  • fast foods
  • lollies
  • pastries
  • pies and sausage rolls
  • takeaway foods

Trans fats

Trans fats are formed when vegetable oils are used in processed foods. Trans fats are unhealthy and should be avoided.

Their use in Australian foods is decreasing. They are used in some pies, biscuits, and commercial cooking fats. They are no longer used in margarine.

Unsaturated fats

Most foods containing unsaturated fats are healthy options. They have proven health benefits.

Mono-unsaturated fats are the major type of fat in foods such as avocados, almonds, cashews and peanuts.

Polyunsaturated fats such as omega-3 and omega-6 fats, can be found in fish, eggs, nuts, and canola, sunflower, safflower and soybean oil.

Some of these foods (such as nuts) might cause allergies in some children.

Read more about dietary fats on healthdirect.

Sugar

All sugars added to foods provide energy, but they add no essential nutrients.

Sugar can encourage people to eat or drink too much. Then the excess energy contributes to excess weight and other health problems.

Sugar-sweetened drinks are especially likely to increase the risk of excess weight. They don’t fill you up or reduce your appetite for other foods. Sugar is also a food for the bacteria that cause holes in teeth.

Different types of sugar

There are many types of sugar.

Sucrose is the sugar in sugarcane and sugar beets. Small amounts are also found in some fruits and vegetables. Sucrose is made up of equal quantities of glucose and fructose. It is the main ingredient of white sugar, brown sugar, raw sugar, golden syrup, treacle and molasses.

Glucose is found naturally in honey and some fruits and vegetables. The starches in rice, bread, cereals and flour are broken down to glucose in your intestine.

Fructose, or fruit sugar, occurs naturally in fruits and honey. It can be made from corn starch. High-fructose corn syrup is the major sugar used in the United States. It is not common in Australia.

Lactose is the natural sugar in milk. It’s also in yoghurt, although the bacteria that thicken yoghurt digest some of the lactose. Most cheeses have very little lactose.

Galactose is another sugar found in milk. And maltose is a sugar found in malt and malted milk.

The ingredient list on food labels must include all added sugars. Food labels should list all ingredients in descending order of weight in the food. If the first ingredient is sugar, you know it is the main ingredient in the product.

As well as those sugars listed above, watch out for agave nectar, agave syrup, barley malt, cane juice, caramel, carob syrup, coconut sugar, date agave sugar, demerara, dextrin, dextrose, fruit juice concentrate, jiggery, maltodextrin, maple syrup, muscovado, palm sugar, rice malt syrup and turbinado. These are all sugars.

Be wary of foods with several added sugars. Some foods, such as breakfast cereals or snack bars, may include several kinds of sugar. If they had only one kind, it would be higher in the ingredient list. Using different sugars means they don’t appear so high on the list.

How much sugar?

The natural sugars in milk and fruit (whole fruit, not juice) are not a problem.

You don’t need added sugars. They should be restricted to 10% (but preferably 5%) of your day’s energy intake.

This is equal to:

  • 6 to 12 teaspoons of sugar per day for adults
  • 2 to 8 teaspoons for 3 to 4 year-olds

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

Last reviewed: March 2022


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Need more information?

Discretionary food and drink choices | Eat For Health

What are discretionary food choices?

Read more on NHMRC – National Health and Medical Research Council website

LiveLighter - Junk Food Facts

Junk food used to be just an occasional “treat” but these days Australians are eating more, and more often. Find out how it all adds up.

Read more on LiveLighter website

Healthy diet for children - myDr.com.au

The average child's diet now gets over 40% of kilojoules from junk foods and drinks. Find out how to encourage better food choices.

Read more on myDr website

Protect Australian kids from junk food advertising | Cancer Council

Cancer Council Research reveals the staggering $129.5M advertising spend by the sugary drink industries vastly outweighs investment in public health advertising in Australia.

Read more on Cancer Council Australia website

Overweight and obesity

Overweight and obesity are terms used to describe ranges of weight that have been shown to increase a person’s risk of certain conditions and health problems.

Read more on WA Health website

Healthy eating for your child

A good diet is important for your child’s development and can reduce their risk of obesity and some diseases. Learn more about healthy eating.

Read more on Pregnancy, Birth & Baby website

Call us and speak to a Maternal Child Health Nurse for personal advice and guidance.

Need further advice or guidance from our maternal child health nurses?

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