Health and ‘Junk’ Food. Why Might Convenience Food Help Us?

by Rosiel Elwyn

The concept of individual ‘food choice’ often leads debates about the personal responsibility of a person to determine their dietary health through avoiding convenience (‘junk’ and takeaway) food, and opting to make home-cooked meals. Eating convenience food is often framed as a breakdown or neglect of domestic duty and good citizenship, and a moral failing of the self or family to provide care and health. Health, wellbeing and fitness, including food and dietary practices, is assumed to be equally affordable and accessible, and therefore, largely reflective of individual decisions. This concept is known as ‘healthism’ (broadly: that your health is determined by your choices and not a sum of your circumstances, environment, genetics etc).

These ideologies however, ignore wider socio-cultural-political factors related to food. For example, access to fresh food and the ability to make home-cooked meals is related to wealth and privilege; significant barriers to food accessibility and affordability are faced by the poor, disabled, chronically ill and marginalised. Convenience food is often framed as ‘bad’, and buying and eating it as a ‘bad’ health choice, and a moral failing.

Eating convenience food is also often conflated with having a higher body weight, and people with large bodies may experience a lot of discrimination and judgements about their assumed morals, which ignores important epigenetic and environmental factors that influence weight (such as stress, dieting and weight cycling, genetics, metabolism, illness, medications). Higher weight is often assumed to cause poor health, rather than that people with very diverse body weights and shapes can have diverse experiences of health. Including that poor health that is influenced by poverty, trauma, and socio-political disadvantage and lead to higher weight through associated stress and metabolic change.

The interrelating systems, power structures and cultural discourses must be considered in the context of the food and diet landscape that contribute to health. Including which foods are judged as ‘good’ and ‘bad’, and by association, how we are made ‘good’ or ‘bad’ when we eat them or do not have access them. When a person is experiencing a lot of stress (such as when they coping with mental health concerns and/or physical health conditions), convenience food can provide a way to intuitively reduce the burden of executive dysfunction (difficulty making decisions and difficulty with performing multiple steps in tasks). When a person is unwell, convenience food provides a way to reduce many of the steps involved in deciding what to buy and make, food preparation and cooking, and washing dishes; therefore, it is an important staple of accessibility.

Convenience food can also be used as an expression of care rather than a neglect of care or domestic duty; it can provide a way to self-soothe and give emotional comfort in high stress. Convenience food can often be energy dense, and stress is draining and damaging to the body, so it can also provide a means of intuitively attempting to re-nourish the body through an energy deficit caused by stress. So, while convenience food is often positioned and internalised as ‘bad’ and associated with shame and failure, it may in truth, represent intuitive self-care, expressions of care to others, and steps toward reducing emotional and cognitive stress during illness.

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