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Healthy Junk Food

Think of the term junk food and what comes to mind? You may think of burgers and fries, ice cream sundaes, potato chips with dip and a Coke, among other things. Junk food is food that’s high in calories and low in nutritional value. Typically it’s either sweet, loaded with fat, or both. We know it’s not good for us, so why do we want it? We want it because it’s sweet and loaded with fat. We’re programmed as human beings to search for high-impact foods when it comes to calories—more calories and sugar equals more energy. The problem we face now is that our options are so plentiful and our lifestyles so much more sedentary (present company excluded, of course) that we don’t/can’t burn off all those extra calories—we don’t need them anymore, but we still want them. So how do we beat the craving for a Chicago dog with the works? We need to re-boot and re-program our brains-think outside the juicebox.

Quit the soda
The first step is to quit fooling yourself into believing that a diet soda is healthier than a regular one. There may not be the calories, but a quick look at the ingredient list will reveal aspartame (great in anti-freeze) and the popular flavor enhancer phosphoric acid (which will also remove rust and your teeth) among others. Not only is it not healthy, but you’re still going to be thirsty—carbonated beverages are pretty horrible at quenching your thirst. If you’d like a healthier option than soda, try juice or water. Read labels though—many popular fruit juices add sugar or “natural flavors.” The phrase “natural flavors” can be misleading—after all, there are many flavors in nature I’d rather not try and I’d still like to know what they are. A fresh-made juice, say the ones at our Juice Bar for example, will provide you with a powerful punch of both sweetness and nutrition. Smoothies made with a lowfat yogurt or Oatscreme will do the same, without the need for detective work to discover what’s in them.

Feeding the craving
The next step is harder. How do you get rid of that craving for a double cheeseburger and fries? You don’t. You need to redirect it, and trick your brain/mouth into thinking you’re feeding that craving. You are probably not protein- or carbohydrate-deficient. If cravings were always due to a missing bit of nutrient in our diet, we’d all be craving kale. The craving for fatty foods can be traced to a combination of evolution (get it while you can) and desire for the “mouth feel” of meats and the comfort associated with these types of food-eating these foods release endorphins that make you feel good.

How do you replace these fatty foods and still satisfy your cravings? Common substitutions for meat include mushrooms, tofu, and nuts. These items can give you the texture and feel of a fatty food without the same health issues. Grill some portabellas instead of a burger, try some of our baked tofu instead of fried chicken, or how about a peanut butter sandwich—while nuts still have fat, the type of fat is much better. The craving for salt, however, may in fact be due to a deficiency in sodium. The key here is to make a conscious choice as to how you’re going to make up that deficiency. You don’t need the fries; you could just as easily meet that need with some veggie salad or with the bread in your peanut butter sandwich.

The easiest place to thwart your junk food tendencies is also the most counter-intuitive. Snack-time sweets, greasy potato chips, and ice cream sundaes are pretty easy to replace with healthier alternatives. Let’s start with chocolate, one of the most common cravings around. A bar of dark chocolate is actually pretty good for you, provided you’re not eating 50 of them. Unlike milk or white chocolate, dark chocolate can help lower blood pressure and act as an antioxidant. There’s still a fair amount of calories, but as long as you’re not putting that dark chocolate on top of a bowl of Cherry Garcia with whipped cream you should be okay. A bag of chips and some French onion dip used to be one of my favorite foods while watching the game on TV. Now I eat some low salt tortilla chips with some salsa, or bake off some pitas and eat them with hummus or tabouli. I get the crunchiness and the flavor without as much grease and fat. Of course the best snack foods out there are fruit and veggies—an apple, baby carrots, or grapes. All of these make great treats and meet the needs of our cravings, while still being great for you.

Other tricks
There are some other tricks to try when you’re craving junk food. The first is to just wait it out. Most cravings will pass within 20 minutes—go do something else and you’ll likely forget it. The next is to fulfill your craving with the healthiest food that will satisfy it—pretzels instead of chips, fruit instead of candy, or yogurt instead of ice cream. The most important thing is that you make conscious decisions about what you’re eating—don’t let your cravings make your decisions for you. The final suggestion I have is that once in a while go ahead and indulge that craving, but do it on your terms. (Unless of course you have a health condition that makes this incredibly bad advice!) If you want some fatty food, make it worthwhile. If you want a sweet, make it one that you can brag about or want to share with someone because it’s so darn good. Make these occasions infrequent and special; don’t waste them on a McWhopper and some Ho-Hos.