We often think of junk food as being a candy bar, prepackaged pastry, or some other item or beverage which offers high levels of fat and sugar content with each serving. The reality of these foods is that anything which offers a limited nutritional value and contains significant levels of calories and salt is classified in this “junk” category. Having these items available in schools is a debate which parents, teachers, and administrators often share because of the need to teach and show healthy eating habits.
Even fast food items, pizza, and other items that are sometimes included on the school lunch menu could be classified as junk foods these days. They generally provide little in terms of vitamins, minerals, or protein. Kids receive energy from a high dose of sugar, which then causes them to crash before the end of the school day. This cycle can result in a reduction of learning opportunities.
When the junk food is consumed as the exception instead of the rule, then most children and adults will not experience ill effects from their eating habits. It is when these items are consumed without a thought of moderation where adverse health impacts can begin to form. If children can access these items in school, then they may not have access to the input from trusted adults as to whether or not their eating choices are positive.
Should junk food be allowed in schools today? Here are the pros and cons to consider on this subject.
List of the Pros of Having Junk Food in Schools
1. Junk foods are easier to manage when they are allowed as part of the school policy.
Schools do have the ability to ban the presence of junk food on their grounds. Parents can limit the access that children have to these items at home. Where the line gets drawn is in the general market. It is impossible to completely ban all possible foods that may be unhealthy for every person. Kids are going to smuggle in food items that they want to eat whenever they can if their favorite items are not permitted. Rather than treat these foods as contrabands, regulating their consumption can help teachers and administrators to work with parents on teaching these kids responsibility and accountability for their nutritional choices.
2. Junk foods are craved more when they are not permitted.
Kids will want the junk foods that schools ban even more when they are told that they cannot have them during the day. Many districts have found that the consumption of these items will go up in the days after implementing such a policy if they do not have replacement options or educational opportunities available to their students. Gardening and exercise programs, along with nutritional information opportunities, can help children learn how to making individually healthy choices by themselves instead of relying on the feedback of others.
3. Junk foods offer a wide range of variety from which to choose.
You can find numerous eating options available to students when junk foods are permitted in schools. They can be arranged in order to the personal taste of the student. Even though they might be included in a home-brought lunch or a snack eaten in class, these items can combine with healthier foods throughout the day to reduce the impact of its nutritional content. It always comes back to moderation when looking at this subject. When kids have access to a diverse set of choices, then they can begin to learn which ones are the best for their short- and long-term health.
4. Junk foods provide greater availability and affordability.
In the United States, the average prices for fruits and vegetables can range from under $0.40 per pound to over $4.00 per pound. Many families stick to simple starches when purchasing produce, such as potatoes, because they tend to be the cheapest fresh foods available at the local store. Only grapefruit, melons, and bananas cost less than the weighted-average price across the country, which is why they account for 56% of all sales in this category.
Eating a healthy diet costs an average of about $1.50 per day. Although that doesn’t sound like much, that works out to more than $2,000 for a family of four. With 1 in 7 households already struggling with food security, junk food is a way to quench hunger in students without creating a negative impact on the family budget.
5. Junk foods save time when students need to eat.
Many students find that they do not receive enough time to eat their lunch during the school day. When time constraints are placed on this process, then they are not getting enough to eat and are consuming what they have too quickly. It is not unusual for students on the current school schedule to receive 10 minutes or less of actual eating time for their lunch. If teachers delay the transition from the classroom to the cafeteria because of student behaviors, this time could be cut by 50%. Offering junk foods may not be the first or best choice parents want to make, but it can help to relieve hunger because the items can be consumed faster than other food choices.
6. Junk foods can be a source of needed nutritional items.
Although there is a higher level of fat and salt content in many junk food items, it is inaccurate to say that they are completely devoid of the necessary nutritional content that students require each day. There are often high levels of antioxidants in these food items. Ice cream provides an excellent dose of calcium per serving. Eating dark chocolate can improve brain power. Potato chips are high in Vitamin B6, fiber, and other necessary minerals. Even Cheese Whiz offers conjugated linoleic acid, which may have anti-cancer properties. That’s why moderation is often more essential to teach to today’s children rather than complete avoidance.
7. Junk foods can even be classified as healthy sometimes.
Even though popcorn can be coated with sugar, caramel, or high-calorie flavoring options, it can also be a healthy snack for schools because it is very high in fiber. If you want to avoid the unhealthy options that are available with this food item, then you will want to use air popping to make them at home. Ready-to-make popcorn products often contain partially hydrogenated oils and trans fats that can lead to plaque formation. If you can avoid the calorie bombs with this option, you might find that a school which outlaws junk food on their grounds might still accept popcorn.
8. Junk foods are often caused by additives instead of the core ingredients.
There are numerous processed and junk foods that are made largely unhealthy because they were loaded with additional ingredients or oils to achieve a longer shelf life. When junk foods are made available at school, then there is no longer a need to depend on unhealthy choices from outside of the district. Parents and administrators can limit the choices of what is available to the healthiest options in this category while still meeting the “craving” that some students have for these food items.
List of the Cons of Having Junk Food in Schools
1. Junk foods often contain higher levels of cholesterol.
It isn’t just sugar and fat consumption that are concerning when children make junk food a regular part of their diet. These items often contain higher levels of unsaturated fat, which means kids can see a boost in their overall cholesterol levels. The World Health Organization reports that higher levels of these food items in the diet creates a higher risk of chronic disease development and stroke later in life. Even the higher levels of salt that are found in processed foods can raise blood pressure levels to increase the chances of heart disease development as well.
2. Junk foods can increase the risk of suffering from depression.
Teens and adolescents are more depressed today than arguably at any other time in history. The figures of this mental health issue are alarming.
• A teen will take their own life because of depression every 100 minutes on average.
• Suicide is the third-leading cause of death for people between the ages of 15 to 24.
• 1 in 5 teens will experience depression at least once before they become an adult.
• Approximately 15% of the youth population is experiencing depression-like symptoms right now.
• Only 30% of the youth who experience depression are actually treated for it.
When kids eat foods with higher levels of nutritional content, then they have more available energy that their brain can use to process events. Because there is more activity involved in their daily routine, it can provide a risk reduction of this mental health issue.
3. Junk foods might lower the IQ level of students.
The nutritional value of the foods that a child eats is directly linked to their brain activity. When junk foods are the primary source of relief for hunger, then there are fewer resources made available to the brain. This result impacts their IQ level over time because the learning process becomes slower. Children only need to eat junk food items three times per week to have a lower IQ level compared to the kids who do not eat these products as often.
Junk foods affect student performance in other was as well. People receive a sudden spike of energy when they consume foods with high sugar levels. As these effects begin to fade, the child becomes less aware and sluggish until they find another snack. That creates another energy spike, which cycles down again after some time. This process is why these items can lead to lower energy levels, lethargy, and a general lack of concentration.
4. Junk foods may lead to higher levels of gastrointestinal issues.
Since for 2003, there has been a 114% rise in the cases of irritable bowel diseases such as ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease requiring hospital admissions for youth in the United Kingdom. This steep rise may have many causes, but eating a lot of junk food could be one of the foundational causes of the issue. It is more challenging for the body to process items that contain high levels of fat. People who eat fast food more than two times per week increase their risks of developing IBD. Although there is no consensus for this disadvantage as of yet, the data does suggest that junk foods could be one of the causes for constipation, bloating, or diarrhea which can become chronic.
5. Junk foods can damage the liver and heart.
The excessive consumption of junk foods can pose a threat to the heart and liver of a child. That is because of the higher levels of salt and fat that is contained in these processed foods. Not only will this increase the risk of obesity in today’s adolescents, but it will also contribute to higher levels of arterial plaque buildup which can lead to future health issues as well. It can even lead to the formation of fatty liver deposits that can lead to dysfunction or disease.
6. Junk foods have an addictive quality to them.
When junk foods are available in schools, then it exposes children to products that are highly habit forming. The regular consumption of these products can lead to kids becoming addicted to them. With the higher levels of fat, salt, and sugar these foods contain, their unique taste can make it difficult for children to resist eating more of them than they should. These habits can be harmful if it takes someone outside of the limits of moderation, creating health issues that could potentially last for years. We are hard-wired to crave high-calorie foods as a means for survival, so continued exposure to them can release neurotransmitters that tell kids that it is time to eat when the opposite may be true.
7. Junk foods in schools can put kids off of healthier choices.
Once children form the habit of eating junk foods in school, then it is also possible for them to move away from the desire to eat healthier options. The artificial flavors of the junk food can make it challenging for people to enjoy the natural flavors of options that are more nutritious. Many families replace other more nutritious items with foods that qualify as being “junk.” If you are eating more cookies or potato chips, then you are usually eating fewer fruits and vegetables throughout the day. This habit decreases your fiber intake, vitamin levels, and eliminates the desire to have items that are healthy.
8. Junk foods cause more problems than just obesity.
We must be concerned about the obesity epidemic in the United States and other countries around the world. Children learn from their home environment. If adults feel that the regular consumption of junk food is healthy for them, then their kids will too. With nearly 70% of the adult population overweight or obese, these rates are climbing in children as well.
The obesity rate in children since the 1970s has tripled, with 20% of school-age children dealing with this issue. Keeping junk foods out of schools can prevent this issue while also reducing the risks of a weakening of the teeth and bones that happens when frequently exposed to high-calorie items and beverages – especially sodas.
9. Junk foods can prevent nutrient absorption when consumed at high levels.
The higher levels of sugar, salt, and sodium that junk foods contain might allow the foods to last longer on the shelf, but they can also be exceptionally harmful to the human body. Many of these excessive elements cannot be broken down by the digestive system. During the attempt to do so, the body can ignore the other vital nutrients it requires for energy, directly impacting the strength of the metabolism, immune system, and other functions. Some items can even prevent the absorption of the vitamins and minerals that are found in the foods.
10. Junk foods create health impacts that kids may not even realize exist.
Children (especially those under the age of 10) do not think about the future consequences of their actions. Kids up to the age of 8 even typically believe everything that they see on television. There is a general assumption that everyone tells the truth all of the time. We should applaud this innocence, but then we must also take the time to instruct kids on what healthy eating choices look like. When junk foods are readily available, it is not unusual for them to gorge on these products simply because they are present. They don’t know any better, which means it is up to us to provide them with the information they require.
The pros and cons of having junk foods in schools revolve around personal choices and freedoms balanced with a responsibility to teach healthier habits. There may be times when an outright ban of these high-calorie items is necessary because there is no other way to show students how healthy choices are better. Doing so will also increase the risk of that child craving the potentially unhealthy item even more. If we can teach responsibility through moderation at home and school, then we can hopefully make a positive impact on the rates of youth obesity which currently exist.
Natalie Regoli is a child of God, devoted wife, and mother of two boys. She has a Master's Degree in Law from The University of Texas. Natalie has been published in several national journals and has been practicing law for 18 years.