A number of nutrition professionals fairly bristle at the term "junk food." There are no good foods or junk foods, they say, just junky diets. In other words, it's the overall eating plan that counts, not the stray high-sugar, high- fat, low-nutrient item that gets indulged in here or there.

The American public has gotten the message—so much so that you might say we've thrown out the baby but kept the bath water. According to a study on the eating habits of more than 15,000 adults nationwide, more than 25% of our calories now come from the following items: cakes, cookies, pies, pastries, ice cream, puddings, cheesecake, sugar, candy, syrup, soda pop, sweetened noncarbonated beverages, corn chips, tortilla chips, potato chips, dressings, gravies, butter, margarine, and oils.

Fully a third of Americans, according to calculations made as part of the research, average an astonishing 45% of their calories from those foods. Another study of 4,700 Americans found that soft drinks were the greatest source of calories—providing more than 7% of daily calorie needs.

All of these items—whether referred to as "junk foods," "high-calorie-low-nutrient foods," or, as some of their most charitable defenders call them, foods of "modest" nutritional value—have few vitamins and minerals for the caloric wallop they deliver. A single slice of cheesecake, for instance, has almost 500 calories and nearly half the saturated fat that someone eating 2,000 calories a day should average. A can of soda pop has about 150 calories and virtually nothing else (check out all the zeroes on a label). And a 150-calorie serving of ice cream, which some people justify as being a reasonable source of calcium, contains as much of that mineral as you could get in 20 calories' worth (4 tablespoons) of skim milk.

"These choices are not without nutritional consequences," says study author Ashima Kant, PhD, an associate professor of nutrition at the City University of New York's Queens College. Not surprisingly, she found that the more of those foods that make up one's diet, the more calories consumed; also, the more fat (and saturated fat) eaten, and the less fiber.

Moreover, Kant found, as junk food in the diet goes up, down goes the consumption of vitamins A , B6 , B12 , C , folate , calcium , and iron . The lower the blood levels of many of those nutrients, too. Furthermore, people who eat more junk food have lower levels of "good" HDL-cholesterol that works to clear gunk from the arteries. And they have higher levels of homocysteine , a blood chemical that researchers are finding is significantly associated with increased heart disease risk.

Fats and Sweets Get All the Attention

Fueling the penchant for less nutritionally desirable choices, Kant believes, may be the fact that "there is very little advertising for the healthier foods." Indeed, when she systematically evaluated the ads in some health-oriented magazines a couple of years ago, she found that fats, oils, and sweets accounted for nearly 30% of all food advertisements, whereas the grain, fruit, and vegetable groups combined accounted for only 6% of food ads.

"You ask people, 'Are you influenced by the ads that you see?'" Kant notes, "and they say, 'Never.' But they perhaps are influenced."

Studies have shown that children are heavily influenced by food advertising. Researchers in Australia found that children who watched a lot of TV had more positive attitudes toward and higher intakes of junk food. The accessibility of junk foods may also influence people's choices, she reports, commenting that getting your hands on high-calorie, low-nutrient items is "much easier than to find a vending machine that has apples in it."

But Kant doesn't like the term "junk foods" because, as she puts it, "it labels foods. I have nothing against any of these foods," she says. "They give us a lot of pleasure. Unfortunately," she adds, "we are eating a lot more of them and paying less attention to more nutritious choices."

Marion Nestle, PhD, chair of the Department of Nutrition and Food Studies at New York University, says that Kant, whom she knows, is "much too polite" to call high-calorie, low-nutrient foods junk foods. She, however, feels that "it's okay to think of junk foods as junk foods." Non-use of the term "gives total permission for people to have an 'anything goes' attitude," she comments. "But people shouldn't kid themselves. While junk foods are not poison, they are not everyday foods. People need to be eating more fruits and vegetables." For those worried about their weight, she adds, "Cutting down on junk foods is a great way to start."

The Influence of the Food Industry

Nestle feels that the food industry is in collusion with the nutrition community to a certain extent. As she puts it, "Many nutrition professionals are beholden to the food industry for research money or support of their organizations" (This doesn't include Kant, who receives not a single dollar from industry for research or consulting.) As such, Nestle notes, there's "a great conspiracy to downplay the advice not to eat junk food" and even to avoid using the term altogether.

Michael Jacobson, PhD, executive director of the Washington-based Center for Science in the Public Interest, puts it even more forcefully. The impetus to get rid of the words "junk food" comes from the food industry, he says. And nutrition professionals "go into contortions to avoid using the term because corporate officials looking for places in which to invest in terms of grants or corporate arrangements don't want to hear their products referred to as junk food." To use the term is "disobeying the rules of the club."

The American Dietetic Association (ADA), which represents the nation's nearly 70,000 registered dietitians, is one of the biggest players with a ban on the use of the term "junk food." Jacobson maintains that this is because the organization gets "an awful lot of money from major corporations and trade associations—grants, consulting fees to big wigs, money for conferences, etc."

"I think 95% of dietitians tell their clients, 'just avoid junk,'" he says. But "the leadership of the ADA has a coterie of spokespeople to whom it refers journalists" writing about nutrition for newspapers and other media, he notes. "They're all trained to learn their lines. They would never let the term 'junk food' pass their lips."

Sheah Rarback, a Miami-based dietitian who is one of those representatives, counters that only about $1.8 million of the ADA's total annual operating budget of $20 million—some 9%—comes from outside organizations such as industry, with the rest coming from membership dues, books sold by the organization, and related items. Further, she says, the association eschews the phrase "junk food" to focus on this or that food as a junk food "is not looking at the big picture for improving your diet. It's a very narrow focus."

She acknowledges that sweets and many other dessert and snack items are low-nutrient foods and says that "we need to minimize" them in the diet. But "if someone's eating at least five fruits and vegetables a day," she notes, plus "whole grains, lean meats, and low-fat dairy products," the foods in question could fit. And in that case, she opines, it's not "junk," but only part of the whole approach. "Why would I tell someone to eat junk?" she asks rhetorically.

Still Skeptical

Jacobson isn't convinced. First off, he says, the $1.8 million from industry is not inconsiderable "gravy." And the association's "seeking of that money," he feels, "is a powerful influence on their positions."

Even more to the point, he says that the association's verbal "contortions avoid the obvious. No one would disagree that if people are eating excellent diets, they could eat a little bit of junk," he comments. "But according to USDA surveys, fewer than 2% of Americans are following a diet with recommended amounts of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Day in and day out, people are eating double cheeseburgers, sugar frosted flakes, soft drinks, candy bars. Not to take this typical American diet into account" when talking about junk foods is missing the reality of that dietary pattern-along with the solution.

Which, he says, is that "without junk foods, it's pretty hard to have a junk diet."