There is no way around it: If you want to be healthy and save money, you’re going to have to cut down on junk food. Foods like crisps, chocolate, candy, fizzy drinks, burgers, fries, pizza and the like. It’s not just about the excess calories either. When it comes to junk and fast foods, there are several reasons why a regular habit is a problem.
JUNK FOODS HAVE FEW VITAMINS AND MINERALS
We get most of the vitamins and minerals we need from fruits, vegetables, whole grains, pulses, nuts and seeds. Yet most junk foods contain none of these. Even if you get a slice of tomato on your burger, the amount is never enough to be called a serving. Very few people compensate for this by having an extra serving of vegetables. No one has a burger with a side salad – it’s fries all the way.
JUNK FOODS ARE HIGH IN SUGAR AND SIMPLE CARBOHYDRATES
We all know that too much sugar is bad for us and that sweets, chocolates and fizzy drinks should be limited. However, in addition to the large amounts of sugar found in cakes, cookies and pastries, they are also made with white flour. White flour, white rice and white potatoes are simple carbohydrates which are rapidly broken down into sugars in the body. Even savoury treats like pizza, burgers and fries have these simple carbohydrates (I have yet to meet a junk food item made with whole grains). These give you the same high blood sugar and insulin spike as if you ate actual sugar. A diet high in sugars and simple carbohydrates has been linked to an increased risk of obesity, type II diabetes, heart disease and certain cancers1.
JUNK FOODS ARE LOADED WITH FAT
We love the taste of fat. This is an evolutionary survival tool, left over from when there was no telling where the next meal was coming from. Our bodies are programmed to stave off the next famine by seeking out the most calorie dense foods. With 9 kcal per gram compared to 4 Kcal per gram of protein or carbohydrates, fats are the most efficient way of getting the most calories. So high fat foods are invariably high in calories. At the same time, the lack of fibre and protein means they are less filling, so you have to eat more to feel satisfied. Not helpful when trying to maintain or lose weight!
JUNK FOODS ARE ADDICTIVE
Most junk foods are a combination of fat and sugar, which is rarely found in nature. Not only does this make them taste delicious, they activate the reward centres in our brains, just like addictive drugs2. Hunger is no longer the driving force behind eating these foods, it’s the pleasure you get. Many people report that the more junk foods they eat, the more they crave them. In fact, frequently overeating junk foods saturates the brain with so much dopamine (a feel good neurotransmitter) that it starts to adapt by making less. This means you need to eat more of these foods to get the same pleasure as you used to get with a smaller portion. This can easily lead to binge eating, where you continue to eat even when full, chasing that high.
This is why many diets recommend you give up junk foods completely. After a few days focusing on fresh fruit, vegetables, whole grains and lean protein, your body will adapt and break the junk food reward cycle. And no longer buying unhealthy food you don’t need will also save money.
The solution: Make junk foods an occasional treat
However, while I do feel a junk food detox can be helpful at the start of a new eating plan, I am not an advocate of constant denial. Many people think of healthy eating as sucking the joy out of life. They feel that they have to give up, forever, all of their favourite things. Sadly, this attitude can really hinder their attempts to eat healthy and cut the body fat. Feeling constantly deprived of foods you love leads to cycles of binging and guilt. Very few people can stay on an eating plan completely devoid of treats for long.
The solution is to plan in the occasional treat. No food is off limits, some are just foods you only have once in a while. So, look at your schedule and plan your treats. It could be a MacDonald’s burger or your favourite homemade cake. If you have a birthday party or other event coming up, plan for that to be your treat day so you can properly enjoy it. Knowing you can have a brownie if you want one makes a huge difference to sticking with a healthy eating plan long term.
As I’ve said before, a healthy lifestyle must be enjoyable and sustainable!
- Stanhope KL. Sugar consumption, metabolic disease and obesity: The state of the controversy. Crit Rev Clin Lab Sci. 2016;53(1):52-67. doi: 10.3109/10408363.2015.1084990. Epub 2015 Sep 17.
- Schulte EM, Avena NM, Gearhardt AN. Which foods may be addictive? The roles of processing, fat content, and glycemic load. PLoS One. 2015 Feb 18;10(2):e0117959. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0117959. eCollection 2015.