It’s colourful, tasty and very addictive, but unfortunately not very healthy. We like eating junk food when meeting with friends, on a movie night, and at simply any occasion we can think of. Feeling a bit sad? Have a big tub of ice cream! Planning a cozy evening with Netflix? Get pizza delivered. These are the choices we make everyday. If we want to live a healthy life, however, we should try to avoid junk food and slowly eliminate it from our diet. Sound impossible? Don’t worry, if you follow these tips on how to stop eating junk food, you’ll soon forget how much you even liked it.
What is junk food?
Processed foods that are low in nutrients like vitamins, fibre, and minerals are called junk food. These foods are also usually high in empty calories that come from containing a large amount of sugars, sodium and fats.
What products fit into the ‘junk food’ category? According to the ‘Eat for Earth’ Australian Dietary Guidelines, products which are low in nutrition include:
- sweet biscuits, cakes, desserts and pastries;
- processed meats and fatty/salty sausages;
- sweetened condensed milk; ice cream and other ice confections;
- confectionery and chocolate;
- savoury pastries and pies;
- commercial burgers with a high fat and/or salt content;
- commercially fried foods;
- potato chips, crisps and other fatty and/or salty snack foods including some savoury biscuits;
- cream, butter and spreads which are high in saturated fats;
- sugar-sweetened soft drinks and cordials,
- sports and energy drinks and alcoholic drinks.
Junk food, sometimes also called discretionary food, doesn’t fit into any of the food groups recommended for daily meals. When consumed more often than nutritious fruits, vegetables, and meats, they can be harmful for our health. Eating too much junk food has been shown to cause obesity, chronic disease such as heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and some forms of cancer.
Australians and junk food
According to the ‘Nutrition Across Life Stages” report released by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW), about one-third of every Australian’s energy comes from eating junk food. Teenagers aged 14-18 had the highest level of energy coming from discretionary foods with 41%.
The types of junk food and drinks Australians consume changes with age. Sweet products like cakes, biscuits and muffins are most popular amongst children. Young Australians are also more likely to eat large amounts of ice cream and chips. Adults eat more processed meat products and consume larger amounts of alcohol, which accounts for 1/5th of all junk food and drinks consumption by adults aged 51-70 years.
The report shows that Australians are not eating enough vegetables each day, with only 10% of adults meeting the guidelines of an average of five serves of veggies a day. This statistic is even worse for children with 99% of young Australians between 2-18 years old not eating enough vegetables.
Even with the growing popularity of healthy, plant based diets, the “Nutrition Across Life Stages” report found that the consumption of meat by adult Australians is higher than it was in 1995. Additionally, we are also eating slightly less vegetables than we did in the 90s.
What is one serve of junk food?
According to Eat for Earth, one portion of discretionary food is the product or a meal that contains 600kJ. For example, that could be 2 scoops of ice cream, 50-60g (about 2 slices) of processed meat or salami, 2-3 sweet biscuits, or one slice of cake.
You can check more information on serve sizes by reading through the nutrition information panel.
Why do we eat junk food?
Even though the name ‘junk food’ isn’t very appealing as it refers to a food’s low nutritional value, junk foods look very yummy on the outside. Who doesn’t want a tasty-looking colourful cupcake or a bag of crispy chips?
Junk food not only looks tasty, but we also relate it with being a comfort food. We treat these types of foods like something that will improve our mood and make us feel better. We tend to grab some junk food on the way home after a hard day, eat some ice cream when we’re sad, or order take away pizza for a movie night.
On top of that, processed food is also a big social element of our everyday life. We can’t imagine a birthday party without a piece of cake or a weekend outing with our friends without a few drinks of alcohol.
For many people with a busy schedule, junk food is simply more convenient. It takes almost no time to prepare, or we can just order it from the many popular fast food restaurants that can be found in any town and city.
Don’t forget that junk food is also much cheaper than healthier meal options. Large companies that produce junk food lure us in with promotions, great marketing campaigns, and eye catching packaging. Going to budget fast food restaurants is also cheaper than visiting restaurants that serve high quality meals.
Why is junk food bad for you?
Each of us needs nutrients that can be found in fruits, vegetables, and meat. Vitamins and minerals give our body energy and take part in all our body’s functions. A lack of nutrients in our diet can cause many health problems.
Lack of fibre
Junk food is usually low in fibre, which can be found in fruits, vegetables, nuts and legumes. Lack of fibre can cause constipation and weight gain. Fibre also helps to move food through our stomach and intestines. If we eat a lot of fatty junk food without eating any fibre, the unhealthy fats and sugars won’t be removed from the body fast enough and will be absorbed. (Check out more about foods high in fibre.)
Large amounts of fat and sugar
Many junk food products have a lot of fats that are a result of food processing. These types of fats can increase cholesterol levels as well as the risk of type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
Junk food also contains a lot of sugars. Even savoury products have some sugar added to boost the flavours. This doesn’t only add calories to each meal, but it also provides no nutritional value. The largest amounts of sugar can be found in soft drinks or sweets and pastries. Large amounts of sugar can cause weight gain over time. Sugar can also be addictive, which won’t help if you want to lose some extra kilos.
Too much sodium
Junk food producers try really hard to make their food appealing and very tasty. This means that in addition to fats and sugars, junk food also contains a lot of salt which is rich in sodium. Sodium retains water in our body, which can cause some health problems like feeling puffy, bloated, and swollen. Sodium can also elevate blood pressure.
Can cause obesity and respiratory problems
By eating junk food that has no nutritional value and is full of sugars and fats, we are likely to gain weight over time. In many cases this can lead to obesity, which is one of the biggest problems of the 21st century. People who suffer from obesity can experience shortness of breath and even asthma.
How to stop eating junk food?
It’s not easy to break the habit of eating junk food. Producers of processed foods work hard to make their products appealing, tasty, and addictive. But saying goodbye to junk food is completely possible. There are just a few simple steps you need to follow to control your cravings and start enjoying a healthy, nutritional diet.
Add more healthy foods to your meals
The first step in reducing the amount of junk food you eat is to start slowly adding some healthier foods to your meals. Try focusing on the positive aspect of this change. If you only think about avoiding junk food, this change might not be as effective.
Start by adding a small side salad to your meal. Get used to the healthy flavours and slowly start adding more wholesome ingredients to your meal.
Eat the salad first
If you’re serving junk food with a side salad, start your meal by eating the healthier dish first. This way you will fill your stomach with vegetables and eat less of the unhealthy food.
Plan your shopping
Supermarkets are designed for us to spend money on unhealthy products. Junk food producers and supermarket owners work together to make us want these products. Junk food is placed on shelves in a way that makes us want to buy more and spend more. That’s why it’s good to plan ahead before going grocery shopping. Make a list of all products you need, and stick to it. This way you’ll only get what you had planned to buy. Don’t wander around the supermarket because you’ll end up putting more things in your trolley. You can also try ordering your groceries online, this way you avoid the temptations that come by being in a supermarket.
Prepare a healthier alternative
Many people cannot give up their favorite fast food meals. In such a situation, it’s worth looking for healthier equivalents of these dishes. You like pizza? Make a cauliflower or whole grain flour base and use high-quality ingredients like real mozzarella.
Choose healthy places when eating out
We all love catching up with friends in nice restaurants. Don’t worry, you can still go out to socialise and eat healthy. It all depends on where you decide to go. Choose restaurants that are known for serving healthy foods. It’s always good to check a restaurant’s menu before visiting to be sure that it has nutritional meal options. If you get invited somewhere that serves mostly junk food, just order a salad.
Many people don’t mind eating junk food because they simply don’t know much about it. They think that because it is advertised and served all over the world, it mustn’t be that bad. What about trying to look more into the ingredients in our foods? Check the labels on all the products you buy. The simple rule is – if you don’t understand the name of the ingredient, it’s possible that it’s not good for you. Healthy products don’t need any questionable additions. When reading labels, focus on the amounts of sodium and sugar.
Work on your emotions
Many of us think about junk food as a comfort food that will make us feel better on a bad day. Emotional eating is one of the reasons for obesity, as many people start treating food as a solution to their problems. If this is something you do often, you should definitely stop thinking about food in this way. Humans eat because our body needs nutrition, and that should be your main goal with food. If you feel a bit down, try going for a walk, listening to some music, or talking to your friends and family. Looking inside the fridge or ordering a big pizza won’t really make you feel better in the long run, and it will only harm your health.
Prepare your meals
Cooking your meals at home is much healthier than buying pre-made processed food. By putting all the ingredients together and preparing a healthy meal yourself, you can be sure that the food you eat has enough nutrients and acceptable levels of sugar and fat. Making a weekly meal plan of homemade foods will also stop you from grabbing junk food or takeaway on the way home from work.
Eat enough protein
This is one of the most important things your body needs from food. Protein makes you feel full and gives you energy. By filling up with healthy protein you will have less cravings for the junk foods. Try healthy sources of protein like fish, meat, tofu, veggies, and legumes.
Eat more fruits
It’s hard to say no to a tempting cupcake or muffin when you have a sweet tooth. Sugar is very addictive and many of us struggle with fighting the cravings for sweet flavours. The best way to limit, and eventually eliminate, sweets from our diet is to eat more fruits. They contain a lot of nutrients and they are rich in fibre. Grab a piece of watermelon or a bowl of fresh berries, and enjoy the sweet flavours without filling your stomach with empty calories from junk food.
Stopping junk food can be very challenging at the beginning, but with a strong will it is possible. After some time, you will slowly forget about junk food. You will feel much better and have a lot more energy. What’s more important is that you won’t crave junk food anymore, and this will improve your health greatly.