Is "Health Food" Worse for You than Junk Food?

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I've written about the evils of junk food in the past. I have jumped on that bandwagon that is happy to demonize the fast food industry. But after watching a 30-minute TV show on Showtime last week, I'm having something of a paradigm shift. Maybe I've been too hasty.

The Showtime show Bullsh*t! (the real title is not edited) takes a new subject every week and exposes lies, misconceptions, and propaganda on everything from sex and psychics to recycling and yoga.

The episode I happened upon was all about fast food. "This should be good" I thought, "how can they really tell us fast food is good for us?"

Well, they didn't. Not really. But what they did reveal made me shift uncomfortably in my seat. I have been one of those bloggers who was quite happy to attack McDonald's, Burger King, Wendy's, KFC and all those other household names in the fast food biz.

But when it comes down to it, what exactly have they done wrong?

Ok, let's look at this rationally for a second. The fast food giants make food that is not good for us. That's a fact. They usually don't deny that either, it's not easy to say that a double quarter-pounder with cheese and a pound of French fries is something your body needs. It's a treat. It should be viewed that way. (See also: Fast Food, Slow Food, and Your Dollars at Work)

However, as a treat, what's wrong with it? It's very tasty, it's cheap, there's a lot of it for your money, and you can get it quickly almost any time you want! It seems to me that the fast food industry has given us everything we have asked for as a nation, and we're now telling them off for it.

If a Big Mac cost $10, we'd complain. It's too expensive. If BK made healthy burgers from soy, we'd complain. We want meat, we want taste. If KFC refused to sell fried chicken, and only stocked grilled, we'd complain. We want to make choices, even if they're bad for us. And when we want to make those bad choices, fast food is there.

In a previous article, a long time ago now, I talked about Mindless Eating, a great book by Dr. Brian Wansink. He spends his days conducting experiments that reveal our true relationship with food, and he had some eye-opening things to say about fast food.

In one experiment, Dr. Wansink's lab was set up to resemble a restaurant, and he invited people to come in and try some food. In this case, a delicious chicken corn chowder. Oh, how the participants loved it. So delicious, so home-made, so succulent. They had no clue that the whole meal was made using ingredients from a KFC meal. One person actually quipped, and I'm paraphrasing a little "you can't get something like that from a fast food restaurant." Well, you can. Maybe not as a soup, but it's all exactly the same stuff.

Wansink noted that we have expectations of fast food and the establishments that serve it. Especially the big hitters like KFC and McDonald's. We actually believe that what they're serving is rotten, but it's cheap and it's quick.

But these corporations have spent billions of dollars making food that's tasty. They excel in it. If it wasn't tasty, no one would buy the food and the franchise would die. Yes, it contains salt, sugar, and fat. Yes, it contains preservatives. But it's tasty, it's designed that way.

In another experiment, to test these perceptions again, Wansink brought in two taco salads to two different groups. The first received the salad on a black plastic fast food tray, and were told that it came from a fast food restaurant.

The feedback was not good. The food was fatty and greasy. The dressing was too sweet. It was generally a cheap suckfest of a meal.

Next up, the exact same salad was served on a pristine white plate, along with an accompanying menu from the California Garden Café. The feedback took a huge turn. Now, the food was fresh and delicious. The dressing was lovely. The whole meal was heaven on a platter. But it was the same meal. All that had changed was the perception of the food. And it was enough to make people feel completely different about the meal.

More dangerous than all of that, though, was when they asked the two sets of diners what they thought the calorie count was of the salad. The first group guessed right, with very accurate guesses coming in at the 980-1000 calorie range. Spot on.

But when asked to estimate the meal from the Café, the calorie count dropped. And boy, did it drop. Guesses were around the 450-500 calorie mark, one person said 200! And that's the real danger here.

When we go to a fast food joint, our guard is up. We're primed — the calorie count of the meals is often displayed now — and we generally know that what we're eating is bad for us. When we eat somewhere else, like a "healthy café" or fancy restaurant, we believe we're getting better food and less fat. Not so. Not at all. As they said in the show, you don't see people trying to ban French and Italian restaurants, and yet they serve very fattening meals topped with creams, cheeses, and lots of butter and oil.

The problem here is that we have been selective with our criticism. We have targeted the fast food giants and warned everyone "hey, this stuff sucks, don't eat it!" But that's not going to stop people eating it, or making bad choices. However, we're at least educated about fast food. We know the calories, and the risks. Wansink says that in his experience, people underestimate the calories of a meal at a healthy restaurant by half. The fancy name equates to better food, and better food means less calories. How wrong can we all be?

So, take this as a warning. Fast food is still bad for you in excess, but as an occasional meal it's nothing to be afraid of. What you really need to look out for are the calories you're consuming from places like Whole Foods, Sprouts, and other health food stores and restaurants. The food could be just as bad for you, but you may end up eating twice as much. In effect, you're blinded by the presentation. Calories are calories and saturated fat is saturated fat. Not even a 3-star Michelin restaurant can change that.

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Guest's picture


"If BK made healthy burgers from soy, we'd complain. We want meat, we want taste."

BK does have a veggie burger on their menu. No one is complaining. As a vegetarian, I get it frequently. It's delicious and about the same price as its animal flesh counterpart.

Guest's picture

I believe the author meant if they only sold soy burgers. A few veggie items does not change burger king's overall appeal. However, if they change all their items to veggie, i think it is likely that BK would lose a lot of money.

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Fifi @

Jessica, I used to be a vegetarian - now I am a Vegan. I agree with you the veggie burgers are yummy. However the cost is not yummy. For what you pay for the meal you can buy a whole box at the supermarket. But, you pay for convenience, and when on a road trip is is nice to know that you have some options at a place that other people will like as well.

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I watched the same show and was surprised how, like yours, my opinion changed. The whole series is very interesting and thought provoking. They did a show about organic food and served the same banana in halves, one as a regular banana and the otehr half as an organic banana. People said the organic one was better.

Guest's picture

Are you kidding me? You're basing your entire assumption on fat and calorie content. Oh, and I watch Penn & Teller's show all the time, and they're very bias, so I wouldn't hold a candle to what they say- they are the entertainment equivalent to McDonald's health image.

There is everything to be afraid of when it comes to eating fast food- the entire process of raising beef, chickens, and produce is unhealthy, inhumane, and goes against their natural process. The end result of this mass production is a nutrition-less meal of artery clogging fat and grease. Think about that- nutrition-less. There are no vitamins or any of the building blocks the body needs to grow.

Healthy foods can be fattening as well, but at least you're receiving a rich source of valuable nutrients.

There's a huge difference between organic, range-free foods- and one of them is that you're a whole lot less likely to die from malnutrition or e-Coli.

Guest's picture

I disagree. Fast food isn't bad in moderation. Very rare is it that there is an item that is good if you eat it all the time.

Guest's picture

First of all, you are ill informed to say that "the entire process of raising beef, chickens, and produce is unhealthy, inhumane, and goes against their natural process." This is pure nonsense. As a farmer, I can attest to the fact that animal domestication is far less cruel than leaving them to their devices in the wild. We shelter the animals, give them abundant and nutritious foods, allow them to reproduce and nurture young. We nourish them in many ways. In turn, they nourish us. That is the natural cycle of life. This way is far less cruel than the ancient hunter method of yore, and there is nothing unnatural about it. Evolutionarily, humans are omnivores, which means that we evolved to eat both plant and animal matter.

Now, I would agree that factory farms are far closer to fitting your description than family farms. But please do not condemn all farming based on some high-horse ideology based on nothing other than your personal opinion.

Second, there is no such thing as bad food. There are only bad diets. All food are nourishing, just in different ways. Some nourish body and mind; others nourish the soul and the emotions. In excess, anything is bad for you (such as carotene poisioning from too many carrots). The best diet nutritionally, as demonstrated by hundreds of studies, is a balanced one including meat. Junk food in moderation has not shown to have any deleterious effects on long term health. And interestingly, some studies show increased risk of certain diseases from vegetarian and vegan diets.

GET INFORMED before you comment on things.

Guest's picture

Kuddo's! Fast food fat and calories are empty.

Going to Whole Foods and other like stores gives you a better quality of food. Organic and GMO-free foods are important to your health and vitality.

I've never heard of anyone going to a fast food establishment as a treat, it is more like what they do on a daily or weekly basis. Again another problem to why we have so many health conditions in this country.

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Debunking the Podunks

Fast food is really not the enemy. Oh the stupidity: I just have to comment on "guest's" post, and I quote...

"The end result of this mass production is a nutrition-less meal"...
Think about that- nutrition-less. There are no vitamins or any of the building blocks the body needs to grow."

I have to scratch my head at your asinine conclusions. Are you even functionally intelligent? The lowly demonized Big Mac provides 24 grams of protein, 30% of daily calcium intake and 25% of daily iron intake. It's not a spinach shake but to state that something is nutrition-less and contains no building blocks? Have you ever read a nutrition label? By the way, I am not recommending Big Mac's as a good food source.

Quote..."There's a huge difference between organic, range-free foods- and one of them is that you're a whole lot less likely to die from malnutrition or e-Coli."

So eating regular produce and meat can cause malnutrition? Wow, are you a scientist? "Range-free"...need I say more. Do you eat a lot of raw burgers? I'm sure your special organic burgers could contain E. coli if they weren't cooked properly.

I apologize for my sarcasm if you happen to be in grade 4.


Ronnie McDonald

Guest's picture

Interesting. I think that anytime you buy food that you don't make yourself, you should realize that you're taking the chance that it is unhealthy. The only way to 'guarantee' that you're getting what you think you're getting is to make your food yourself. That way, you know what's going into it, you know how it's being prepared, and you can look at the source ingredients to know how much fat, sodium, preservatives and the like are going into your stomach.

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so, simply by cooking, you feel better about the meat you eat? my guess is that the meat at the grocery store is just as questionable as the restaurants' meat.

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Maybe I'm in the minority, but when I eat out a non fast food restaurant, I don't assume the food is healthier. It's usually pretty obvious by just looking at it or reading the menu. Maybe I am not the average consumer?

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While I understand where several of the other commenters are coming from by mentioning the food sourcing, etc. as reasons to still be cautious about fast food, I do appreciate your article as someone who has been dieting in the last six months.

Strictly from a fat and calorie standpoint, it is really alarming to find out how much really is in so much restaurant food. Cream, bad oils, loads of butter. Many higher class restaurants work just as hard to make food "taste good" as the fast food joints. And often times, the hidden ingredients really aren't any better than at fast food restaurants.

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This was a really interesting read. While I get what some of the other commenters were saying, I think the bottom line is that our perception affects our evaluation of the food. Because we expect bad, unhealthy food to come from fast food joints, when we evaluate how healthy they are for us (calories / fat content) we can judge them fairly well because we take where they come from into account.

On the flip side, if something seems like it's from a "healthy" place our perception of that affects our ability to evaluate how healthy that food is for us. I think the bottom line is that we need to be aware of the fact that looks are deceiving.

Guest's picture

I just saw that this weekend. Compared to what I prepare for myself on a daily basis no restaurant impresses me much, and I haven't haven't had anything in several years that was worth the entree price. When I very rarely get something to go, I usually stop at Panera Bread for a panini which doesn't cost that much more than a similarly sized meal at another fast food place. I'm not under any delusion that they're any healthier; I just like their sandwiches.

I think, like most, I fall somewhere in the middle of the two viewpoints in the episode. I don't have a problem with fast food restaurants and think that the gov needs to stay away from lifestyle choices and those who service them. But I also side somewhat with the raw-foodists, because I know that I can quickly prepare a much healthier and cheaper meal out of unprocessed ingredients at home. So the whole idea that fast food is a boon for busy working stiffs is bullshit.

Guest's picture

Well said! One of my pet peeves is when people blame fast-food chains for all the fat kids in America. McDonalds doesn't make those kids fat.... their parents' negligence does! I'm not saying kids should never be given French fries, just that parents need to exercise restraint in how often they feed their kids that crap. And the rest of the country needs to wake up and realize that McDonalds is ultimately not to blame for obese children, bad parenting is.

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Finally, some common sense!

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Moderation would go a LONG way toward improving the diets of North Americans. Most restaurants give you way too much food per serving.

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Although they made some valid points, they also were incredibly intentionally misleading to all those in the study (yes we're victims to our own psychology sometimes... ok frequently), and they also compared one of the healthier fast food places around with some of the fattiest heavy french dishes possible. As usual with penn and tellers bull5h1t!, they make good points but heavily bias what is presented, I love the show but sometimes they go a bit far to make a point

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I have the pleasure of working with Dr. Wansink at and Dr. Wansink is a world leader in the eating behaviors of people and the author of the book you mentioned, "Mindless Eating." He does warn people of "Health Halos." This basically means that eateries that advertise or present themselves as being healthy can fool us. Maybe they are healthy, maybe not. The danger is that we may eat twice as much because we "think" it is lower in calories. If we are strictly talking calories (which is all the body know when it comes to weight gain and weight loss), we might have been better off with the big mac.

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So are you attacking health food or non-fast food? The headline says health food. The concluding paragraph says health food. But the actual body of the piece says non-fast food. Big difference there. Plus, the headline is pretty misleading in that only a small part of the piece itself is about health food being bad for you.

Furthermore, you fail to link up two major points in your piece: fast food is cheap and our society attacks it more than non-fast food. The problem with fast food is that it's cheap! Restaurants squeeze all sorts of things out of the supply chain by using a ton of corn, using the cheapest, lowest quality meats, etc. Then they sell it to you at a price that makes you want to eat it all the time. The family-owned Italian restaurant downtown has prices that force you to only eat out once or twice a week. Furthermore, these restaurants also don't pretend to be healthy.

Most importantly, you look at economics only from the demand side. You say that since Americans want this food, the restaurants aren't doing anything wrong. But anyone who knows a thing or two about marketing knows that that's not how it works. People don't always ask for things that they buy. Sometimes you make them want it. We didn't always have fast food in America. There was a time when we survived without it. Do you mean to tell me that the reason why it exists and is so popular right now is ONLY because Americans asked for it? No! Americans didn't even know what to ask for before it came along. The food industry made it and convinced us that we like it. And they continue to do so every day. How do you think the people in the study got their perceptions that the non-fast food was healthy? In a similar way to how they got their perceptions that the fast food is tasty. Sure, part of it is demand. But you have to look at what the suppliers are doing too.

Guest's picture

I would agreed with you on the standpoint that as young consumers we got sucked into the consumerism of the big businesses like McDonald and Burger King through a lot of their advertisements and sale pitches. Through the many researches and studies that are constantly bombarded at us, we can't keep straight with whom is paying for which research and what are the hidden agendas behind such actions. We as consumers are very reactive to whatever research figures that are skewed toward any side. If one is on the "health" side, that person can obliterate the idea that a treat from McDonald or KFC is bad simply and definitively because he/she links every single obese/overweight person as the fault of these establishments. I used to live in a very small town in Alabama and we didn't even have a single fast food restaurant and yet kids are still obese eating homemade meals. Vice versa, the folks on the "fast food" side will make fun of all the tree hugging, organic products loving people because the alienation that they, the raw-food eaters, tend to exude on the "bad eaters". We have made food choices turn into more of a political focal point than a socio-economic one. There seems to be more bashing and criticizing than accepting people and harmonizing the belief that one held so strongly on either extremities.

I read an article on the Wall Street Journal dated June 28, 2010 about the increased in sales of Vidalia's onion grown in such namesake town in Georgia. Case in point, this increase is cause by the money spent for advertising by Vidalia with Dreamwork SKG (producer of the cartoon Shrek the III). The farmers in Vidalia have sold more onions this year-to-date than any other year ever and they have a 2 weeks delay on the season. Kids are digging the onion from watching the cartoon. These are kids that used to hate onions.

So go on, if anyone want to fix the problem, put your money where your mouth is and do it. Start a trend if you think it worthwhile and enjoy the end results of your choice and stop the bickering.

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healthy burgers from soy? I am finding liver disease is thought to be caused by soy.

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Certain things I take issue with. Ok, fast food in moderation, sure. But Dominos is in our school lunchrooms. There is the problem. Its not something that kids given a choice about. Or if they are given a choice are they able to make the right one. Our children are conditioned from kindergarten to desire "fast food" type food, right in our schools. Of course a child is going to choose chicken nuggets over grilled chicken. McD and BK market to a crowd that is not eating at home. ever.

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I'm with you- adults can choose where to eat & should be trusted to make their own choice. But kids? My daughter's middle school lunchroom looks like the food court of a mall. And you can bet the salad bar line is not the longest! I watched Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution on hulu recently... oh, that he would come here and spend all his time in the schools! A group of parents tried to get the elementary schools at least to serve healthier food this past year and basically got placated with a new rule allowing a child to only have one sweet per day while at school. So if the class is having cupcakes for someone's birthday, the kids in that class theoretically can't also choose cookies for dessert at lunchtime. Of course, they can still have their eggo-style waffles with syrup for breakfast & their PBJ on white for lunch (always available in case the kids don't like whatever the main selection is). What crap.

Guest's picture

Avoid all bad foods and Junk food. Treat them as something like once or twice a year!

Till we learn how to really eat right, we will continue to be bombarded with diabetes and heart diseases, obesity etc.

Guest's picture

those studies seem to be about human perception in general as opposed to what constitutes "healthy" food. You could easily apply that study to other consumer items.

The are so many problems with the food industry it can't be summed up in a comment or article. Labeling and ingredient listing is one of them. Also, there's a lot more to a healthy food than just calories, cholesterol and fat. How it's grown, how it's processed, what it's fed and how it's treated (if you eat meat), etc all factor in. Plus I would argue that yes people that tend to cook at home these days go to farmers markets and/or try to be aware of items in their local grocery store and have a better idea of where their food comes from and how it was grown. What do you think people did before there were grocery stores? And don't get me started on the pet food industry. .. (hint: there are no kibble trees in the wild and yes dogs and cats can eat and digest raw, UNCOOKED bones)

it's all marketing people. I would also argue that it's healthier to eat a piece of locally raised, grass fed, humanely treated beef than it is to eat a heavily processed garden burger built in a factory hundreds of miles away.

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Soy is NOT a healthy food.

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I believe this is the best article I've read from you. Well done!

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The biggest problem with this article is that it conflates what Americans might call health foods with real health foods. It is simply not the case that fast food is better than real health food, by definition. Health food is food that's good for your health (the category of food from which all of your meals should be selected), whereas, as you pointed out, fast food is a compromise at best and a problem at worst.

The real problem with America is that we have no idea what health foods really are. Your article says that a gigantic "health food" bowl of iceberg lettuce covered with crispy chicken, bacon bits, caesar dressing, cheese, and cracker strips can be just as bad as fast food. However, the better thing to say would be that the salad isn't really "health food" at all. Rather, and sadly, it's the only form in which the vast majority of this country will take their vegetables. Real health food would be a bowl of miso soup with shiitake mushrooms and seaweed, a piece of grilled fish, some spinach sauteed in sesame oil, a handful of blueberries in plain yogurt, etc.

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Fifi @

This is a difficult topic. I think moderation needs to be exercised with all eating. You can eat to much "healthy" food as well. I am a vegan and very into health, eating and exercise so I am also on the bandwagon against the fast food industry. Although I do need my occasional sweet tea. :)

Fifi @