It’s merienda time and the food cart is making its way to your desk. Will you pick up a sweet cupcake, a salty bag of chips, a cheesy white bread sandwich?
How about none of the above?
There’s a reason it’s called junk food: though they might be tasty, they don’t usually have any redeeming nutritional value. The amount of processing their ingredients undergo strips them of naturally-occurring flavor, vitamins and minerals. In order for junk food to be palatable, manufacturers use a lot of fat, salt, sugar, and artificial flavorings. (Imagine eating unsalted corn chips or unfrosted, unflavored cereal. Cardboard, anyone?) You may end up consuming a lot of empty calories that contribute to your girth rather than your health.
If you’re making a conscious effort to eat healthier but can’t stop making the habitual raid on the supermarket junk food aisle, here’s how you can change your ways.
Over years of junk food abuse, you’ve trained your mouth and your brain to crave these kinds of foods. Humans are also genetically hardwired by our hunter-gatherer past to scarf down sugars, fats, and salts in case of food scarcity. However, living in this era where food is plentiful, there’s no need for such behavior.
Retrain your palate by substituting these healthy whole foods that provide the same tastes and mouth feel as your junk food favorites. Whole foods are also chockful of nutrients your body needs to work at its fullest potential. Soon enough, you’ll be kicking that junk food habit and craving healthy treats instead.
Replaces: frosted cereal
Your body needs carbohydrates for energy, but you don’t need to get them from sugary cereals. Oatmeal, especially the non-instant kind, is high in complex carbohydrates, fiber, and protein, a combination that makes you feel fuller, longer. You can flavor your oatmeal with natural honey and fruit, and give it more texture by adding nuts to the mix.
Fruit (fresh, frozen, or dried)
Replaces: candy, canned fruit in syrup, ice cream
You don’t have to give up your sweet tooth. Fruits are just as sweet, or even sweeter, than candy. Not all fruit is equal, though. Have fruit fresh, frozen, or dried, rather than drowning in sugar syrup (which is just as bad as having candy). If you’re looking for a sweet fix that fills you up, go for fresh fruit with lots of fiber and water, like apples. Go for frozen fruit if you’re looking for a chilly treat. If you’re looking for something intensely sweet, dried fruit like raisins and apricots will satisfy that craving.
Replaces: ice cream
Sometimes you want something creamy and comforting. Instead of sugary, fat-laden ice cream, go for natural yogurt. It has probiotics (“good” bacteria) which help with digestion. Too sour? Drizzle on some honey or add some dried fruit.
Replaces: milk chocolate
It might surprise you to know that cocoa isn’t the first ingredient in a milk chocolate bar. There are even some varieties that have no cocoa content at all, but are merely chocolate-flavored slabs of fat. (Yikes!) Try dark chocolate, especially brands with 80% cocoa or more. Dark chocolate has been shown to contain flavonoids that promote heart health. The more intense chocolate flavor will also sate your chocolate craving faster.
A doughnut is basically sugar, shortening, and flour deep-fried in oil – not very nutritious. If you’re looking for that mealy mouth feel, try a whole-grain muffin instead. You can even split one with a friend; the whole grains in the muffin are more filling, ensuring you eat less.
Flavored sparkling mineral water
Soda is full of simple sugars; drinking a glass shoots the sugar straight into your bloodstream, causing a sugar high and a crash after. It’s also very easy to drink too much of these empty calories. Additionally, carbonated drinks leech calcium from your teeth and bones, making them prone to brittleness.
Try a flavored mineral water, or even better, make your own by adding a slice of lime or lemon to an ice-filled glass of water. If you’re craving the fizzy feeling, use naturally carbonated mineral water.
There’s nothing quite like the crunch and texture of chips – or is there? Grab a handful of lightly salted almonds the next time you get the munchies. Not only are they natural and unprocessed, but they have vitamins and minerals your body can use.
Baked sweet potato wedges
Replaces: French fries
Starchy, fatty, salty – there’s no doubt why French fries are a favorite comfort food for many. You can still enjoy your potatoes baked instead of fried, flavored with a little salt, pepper, and herbs. You can also try sweet potato, which have a lower glycemic index, meaning they won’t spike your blood sugar and leave you feeling hungry within an hour or two.
Do you have any other healthy food substitutes for junk food? Let me know in the comments!
An earlier version of this article was published in Action & Fitness Magazine July 2010.