Most of us are a sucker for bad food, especially over the holidays. It’s just a part of life. Our world has evolved around the convenience of food and satisfying our hunger cravings versus fueling our body with what it needs. Why is this? Why do we tend to crave “junk food” such as chips, a cheeseburger and fries, or ice cream over the nutrients our body needs to function properly? Does eating a few days of junk food or even a single day of junk food really make a difference? What is a good balance and how do we stay on track? Let’s take a look.
First of all, what is considered “junk food”? Junk food consists of any food that is highly processed, high in calories and low in nutrients. Foods that are high in added sugars, salts, and saturated or trans fats are considered to fall in the junk food category as well. Despite our best intentions to eat healthy, some of us tend to find ourselves defaulting towards the unhealthy foods – knowing that we shouldn’t.
The truth is that certain foods can affect our brain in a way that makes it hard to avoid unhealthy food. Certain junk foods have been known to release dopamine which affects the biochemistry of our brains. This may trigger addictive-like symptoms to highly processed foods that keep us going back for more. You see, our brain uses more energy than any other organ and glucose is its primary source of fuel. Even though our brain thrives off glucose, too much sugar can impair cognitive skills and…self-control. Sugar fuels a craving for wanting more. Why, it has a drug-like effect in the rewards center of our brain that can produce addiction-like effects on the brain, which drives us to want more and more. Over time, our bodies need more amounts of sugar each time to produce the same amount of a reward response in our brain. This triggers us to reach continuously for the low-nutrient foods rich in sugar, salt, and fat.
Some evidence points to junk food as being as addictive as alcohol and drugs. It doesn’t help either that our society today gives us instant access to cheap, high-energy food that have marketing companies behind them to push food packaging strategies that play a big part in triggering our brain process to influence our food choices. A food marketing research study conducted by the Center of Economics and Neuroscience in Germany concluded that the influence of marketing on the actual taste experience has been referred to as the marketing placebo effect. In this study, school children were presented with the same cereals in different packaging. One of the packagings was specifically designed to be more appealing to children – this same cereal not only “tasted better” due to the packaging but the children desired more quantity of the cereal as well.
With food marketing and our brain influencing our decisions, does it really hurt to reach for the junk food every once in a while? We all know the long term effects of constantly eating bad good, but what are the short term effects of a bad meal here and there? A few meals of junk food can negatively impact your metabolism. A small study from The Obesity Society found that eating a small amount of junk food leads to a reduced ability for muscles to turn glucose into energy, even when keeping the calorie count the same as a nutritional meal. This is just one of many short term effects from junk food. One bad meal can cause a spike in your blood sugar, which is a result of eating refined carbohydrates and added sugars. This sudden spike in insulin then leads to a quick drop in blood sugar that leaves us feeling tired, cranky and still hungry. One bad meal also causes an increase in inflammation throughout the body and can lead to an increase in blood pressure. Don’t sweat it though; our bad food choices can often be overturned by our healthy eating choices. If you balance your lifestyle to follow healthy life choices more often than junk food choices, you allow your body to “get away” with the occasional junk food binges.
So how do we close the gap between dietary recommendations and the food choices we make…prepare yourself and be aware of the choices you are making. Look at the long term effects of what our bad eating habits can do to our lives over just the short term effects. Take control of the choices you make and avoid going on a “diet”. If we tell our minds we are going on a diet, this can trigger wanting what we can’t have. Adding hunger restrictions tend to make things harder and you may be setting yourself up for failure. The better solution is making better eating habits and lifestyle choices; watch your portion control, make a shopping list before going to the store and stick to it, meal prep, make a list of fast food places that serve healthy foods for when you are in a time crunch or are not in the mood to cook.
Are we saying to completely avoid junk food and to overcome our cravings? Of course not, we are all human and have our faults. I do advise to try to choose a healthier option over a junk food option, but if you find yourself reaching for the junk food, try to limit it to just once a week and then balance the rest with healthy food and lifestyle choices.
Here are some suggestions for healthy swap alternatives to junk food:
Fruit instead of candy
Lean chicken breast sandwich over a cheeseburger
Greek yogurt over ice cream
Whole wheat pasta over white pasta
Sweet potatoes over plain potatoes
Cauliflower rice over white rice
Drink a cup of coffee over a sugary energy drink – try sweetening with cinnamon over sugar
Eat popcorn over chips
Goat cheese instead of cheddar cheese
Dark chocolate over baked goods
Almond butter over peanut butter
Black bean chips over tortilla chips
Rice cakes over crackers
Roasted chickpeas over croutons
English muffin over a bagel