Staying away from junk food can be a challenge for anyone trying to eat more healthy. Try this easy trick to break the “junk food junkie” label.
Who doesn’t love it?
Potato chips, candy, soda, fried foods, french fries … Twinkies.
Let’s face it: If it wasn’t “junk” and terrible for our health and waistline, we’d eat it all day. Even the most fitness-conscious person will admit that if we could instantly make Snickers and Mountain Dew a health food, they’d be downing candy bars and soda in a second.
Problem is, you can’t lose fat or stay healthy on a diet of soda, snack cakes and fried potato products.
So how do you break the cycle?
Simple: You learn the fine art of “substitution.”
Why We Love Junk Food
There are a number of reasons we like junk food. These include the taste, the texture and even the way our genes have been coded. Our bodies have been “hardwired” over time to crave certain foods by nearly 200,000 years of evolutionary adaptation.
Junk foods typically are loaded with simple carbs and sugars, fats and sodium. At a very primitive level, our bodies love these things (as well as amino acids, often in the form of meat or eggs.)
When we were hunters and gatherers, simple carbs and sugars gave us quick energy, fats provided us with long-term energy stores and prevented hunger, and sodium ensured that our cells regulated internal and external pressure. Amino acids from game helped build strength and muscle, which came in handy when hunting. Sodium also enhanced the flavor of foods and made them more palatable, which helped when your diet was primarily wild game, root vegetables or whatever else you could forage.
These factors were critical for our survival thousands of years ago, when our food supply was spotty, people needed sources of quick energy to hunt down game, vitamins and minerals were limited by geography (for example, if you didn’t live near an ocean, salt could be hard to come by) and foods were bland because of the scarcity of herbs and spices.
So our cravings for salty, fatty and sugary foods may actually be our body’s mechanism to ensure that we get enough calories and macro- and micro-nutrients to survive.
I’m not suggesting that we are genetically predisposed to eating junk food. There was no junk food available when our ancestors were hunting and gathering. But the reason that we find junk foods pleasurable today may be because they contain substances like sugar, salt and fat that our bodies require in varying amounts to survive, based on our activity levels. Remember that pleasure is nature’s way of encouraging a behavior, and pain is its way of discouraging it.
What Was Good for Us Then, Is Killing Us Now
Jump forward to 2008, and we face an obesity epidemic fueled by overly-processed snacks, junk food and fast foods that are high in simple carbs, fats and sugar.
We still have the tastes of our ancestors, but we are not nearly as active as they were. That means that the excess calories we consume in the form of sugars and fats from junk food get stored away as body fat (instead of being used for energy), contributing to a wide-range of serious health problems from diabetes, to heart disease, to cancer.
Instead of helping us survive, our primal taste for sugars, salt and fat is killing us.
Our environment and activity levels have changed, but we continue to eat like it’s 200,000 BP.
DID YOU KNOW? A February 2005 Wall Street Journal poll found that 83 percent of American adults believe “public schools need to do a better job of limiting children’s access to unhealthy foods like snack foods, sugary soft drinks and fast food.”
Why Junk Food Is “Empty”
Fighting your innate biological drive to enjoy more sugars, fats, and sodium is difficult. After all, your body has adapted over thousands of years to encourage it.
You can condition yourself to get used to eating less of these foods (which will reduce cravings over time), but at a primitive level, restricting yourself for prolonged periods of time is generally ineffective. Each individual is different, as well, and some people have less cravings for fat or sugar than others. Others find it very difficult to give up junk food, even when highly motivated.
The real problem with junk food is not necessarily that it contains sugar, fat or salt, but that modern food production techniques have stripped out many of the nutrients and fiber that exist in the whole food. So these processed foods contain extra sugar, salt and fat to make them more “satisfying” and flavorful. They also contain artificial flavorings or flavor enhancers to make them even more palatable.
The result is a food that tastes great, but is nutritionally incomplete. This is why soda, cakes, and potato chips are called “empty calories.”
Kicking The Junk Food Junkie Syndrome The Easy Way
The trick to ditching junk food is to substitute healthier, whole foods that mimic the flavors and textures of junk food. The foods that you substitute will still have certain attributes of junk food (saltiness, sweetness and fat), but they will be in a form that is more nutritionally dense.
For example, if you love potato chips or french fries with a sandwich or burger, you can substitute foods like salted almonds or salted mixed nuts.
Although the sodium content and fat content will still be fairly high in nuts, you’ll have shifted from consuming empty calories in the form of chips or french fries, to a nutritionally dense food that contains healthy fats and is rich in minerals. The saltiness and crunchiness of nuts can “substitute” for the same characteristics that you enjoy in a less-nutrient rich food like potato chips.
Other common junk food substitutes include:
- Low fat or non fat yogurt or Quark instead of high-fat sour cream
- Flavored sparkling or mineral water instead of sugary soda
- Naturally flavored instant oatmeal (try adding a tbs of natural peanut butter) instead of a cookie
- Lightly sweetened organic dark sipping cocoa instead of hot chocolate
- A scoop of chocolate whey powder with skim milk instead of chocolate milk
- Baked potato wedges with olive oil and sea salt instead of french fries
- Apple slices or bananas with natural peanut butter instead of a snack cake after dinner
- Fresh or frozen berries or banana slices on whole grain cereal instead of sugary cereals
- Homemade healthy no bake cookies instead of the sugary, full-fat kind (or as a healthy alternative to expensive and sugary sports or nutrition bars)
- Low-sugar granola like Bear Naked fit granola or homemade granola instead of a brownie
- Kashi Chewy Go-Lean Bars instead of a candy bars
- Healthy pizzas made with whole grain Lawash or flatbread, 2% mozzarella, jarred pizza sauce and low-fat ham instead of pepperoni cheese pizza
- Meatless burger like Boca Burger instead of hamburger
- Healthy nachos made with baked tortilla chips, vegetarian or low-fat refried beans, extra-lean ground turkey, avocado slices and low-fat or 2% sharp cheddar cheese instead of Taco Bell nachos
- Natural popcorn with a few sprays of butter flavored canola oil and seasoned salt instead of the full-fat version
FOOD FOR THOUGHT: In general, processed foods are more “energy dense” than fresh foods: they contain less water and fiber but more added fat and sugar, which makes them both less filling and more fattening.
What About Artificial Sweeteners and Fat Substitutes?
Since we are talking about substitutions for sugary, fat or salty foods, let’s quickly discuss artificial sweeteners and fat substitutes.
However, the goal of healthy substitution with junk food is the replacement of empty calories, with nutritionally-dense foods.
Even if you set aside the health and safety concerns associates with artificial sweeteners, you are still left with a food produced in a lab that has no nutritional value. Indeed, recent research has shown that consumption of artificial sweeteners may actually encourage people to gain fat, versus lose it.
In terms of fat substitutes like Olestra, the same principle applies.
Olestra is a fat substitute that passes through the body undigested. This means that doesn’t contribute any fat calories or nutritive value to the diet. Because it is nutritionally-empty, it doesn’t meet the criteria of a good “substitute” food. Indeed, because Olestra has a tendency to pull fat-soluble vitamins, undigested, along with it, manufacturers have to put additives in the food to facilitate the natural absorption of fat-soluble vitamins.
Olestra (not unlike artificial sweeteners) may encourage people to over-eat, because they believe that without any fat, they can eat as much food as they want. However, because it’s frequently used in conjunction with highly-processed foods like snack chips, you still are consuming high-glycemic carbohydrates and calories, regardless of the fact that it contains no fat.
The Takeaway: Say Goodbye to Junk Food and Hello To Healthy Food
“Fooling” you taste buds with nutritionally-dense substitutes for the pleasurable flavors and textures you find in junk food is one of the more effective long-term solutions for breaking your junk food habit once and for all.
Tags: Artificial Sweetener, Aspartame, Diet Tips, Fat Substitute, Healthy Junk Food, Healthy Substitutes for Junk Food, Junk Food, NutraSweet, Olestra, Saccharine, Sucralose
Category: Diet Tips
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