When it comes to junk food, we all know it’s not the healthiest option. However, there are times when we crave a little indulgence in the form of salty snacks, candy, or fast food. The key is choosing the least offensive junk foods that provide some positives like protein or fiber while limiting fat, sodium, and sugar. Moderation is also key – junk food should be an occasional treat, not a daily habit. By making educated choices, you can satisfy your cravings without completely sabotaging your health goals. This article will examine common junk food options and compare their nutritional profiles to help identify some of the “healthier” picks.
What makes a food “junk”?
Junk foods are typically processed foods that are high in calories, fat, sugar or salt with little nutritional value. They provide a lot of calories without many vitamins, minerals or fiber. Some common traits of junk food include:
– High in sugar: Candy, baked goods, sugary cereals and drinks like soda have added sugars. Even foods that don’t taste sweet like crackers often contain sugar. Too much added sugar provides empty calories and can lead to weight gain.
– High in refined grains: White bread, white rice and snack foods made with refined flour lack the fiber of whole grains. Refined grains are quickly broken down into sugar, spiking blood sugar levels.
– High in unhealthy fats: Fried foods and baked goods contain trans fats or saturated fats that raise cholesterol levels.
– Highly processed: Chips, lunchmeats and frozen meals are heavily processed, depleting naturally occurring nutrients and fiber. Chemical preservatives are often added to enhance shelf life.
– High sodium content: Salt and other sodium additives are added to enhance flavor in foods like chips, fast food, canned soups, sauces and frozen meals. Too much sodium can increase blood pressure.
– Lacking nutrients: Junk foods often provide calories without any vitamins, minerals or other nutrients the body needs. This can lead to nutrient deficiencies.
– Low in fiber: Refined grains, sugars, oils and sodium rich foods typically lack adequate fiber that is needed for digestion and maintaining balanced blood sugar levels.
Factors to consider when comparing junk food
When determining which junk foods are “healthier” choices, here are some things to consider:
– Calorie count: The total calories, and how large the serving size is matters. Lower calorie options are better for keeping portion size under control.
– Source of calories: You want calories to come from proteins and healthier fats, not just refined grains and sugar.
– Fiber content: More fiber helps you feel full with less food intake. It also promotes better digestion and stabilizes blood sugar response.
– Added sugars: Less added sugar is preferable to avoid spikes and crashes in energy levels.
– Sodium content: The less sodium the better to limit effects on blood pressure.
– Ingredients list: Look for shorter, more natural ingredients lists instead of long lists of artificial or chemical additives.
– Nutrient content: Some junk foods fortify with vitamins and minerals, choose those with higher nutritional payoffs.
– Processing method: Minimally processes foods retain more nutrients versus heavily process or fried.
– Portion size: Even “healthier” picks should be eaten in moderation. Pay attention to serving sizes.
Keeping these factors in mind, you can compare nutritional labels and ingredients to make informed decisions. No junk food is truly healthy, but some choices are substantially better than others.
Best junk food options by category
Evaluating common junk foods by category can help identify better options to satisfy cravings for sweets, salty snacks, fast food and more. Here are some of the “healthier” picks by food type:
Salty snacks like chips, pretzels and crackers seem harmless but can pack a lot of calories, fat and sodium. Here are a few better options:
– Popcorn: Air-popped popcorn is naturally low calorie. Avoid movie theater style with oil or loads of butter.
– Edamame: These young soybeans pack protein, fiber and nutrients. Choose dry roasted or boiled.
– Rice cakes: Look for whole grain varieties with few additives and top with peanut butter or avocado.
– Nuts and seeds: Portion controlled packs of unsalted nuts or seeds make a crunchy, filling snack.
– Bean-based chips: Black bean, lentil or edamame chips have more fiber and protein than potato chips.
– Pretzel thins or sticks: These provide crunch with less calories than regular pretzels.
Candy, cookies, cakes and other sweets are hard to resist but deliver a sugar punch. Here are some less-bad choices:
– Fruit: Fresh fruit like berries, bananas, apples and citrus offer natural sweetness with vitamins, antioxidants and fiber.
– Greek yogurt: Choose unsweetened varieties and add berries or a drizzle of honey for sweetness.
– Dark chocolate: Look for 70% cocoa or higher for antioxidant benefits. Stick to small servings.
– Frozen fruit bars: Bars made with real fruit provide hydration and nutrients.
– Baked snacks: Fig bars, animal crackers or ginger snaps offer some fiber and aren’t as heavily processed.
– Granola bars: Look for varieties with less sugar and more nuts and dried fruit for energy.
Fast Food and Take Out
It’s hard to make fast food healthy, but you can make better choices to limit grease, sodium and calories. Some options include:
– Grilled chicken sandwich or wrap: Skip fried and opt for grilled meat with salad in a whole wheat wrap.
– Bowl or salad entrees: Bowls with rice or greens as the base are fresher than sandwiches. Load up on veggie toppings.
– Veggie pizza: Load it up with vegetables and limit the cheese to cut calories. Thin crust is better than thick or pan styles.
– Tacos or burritos: Fill with lean protein, beans, salsa and veggies. Avoid heavy sauces and sour cream.
– Roasted chicken or rotisserie chicken: Choose skinless options with sides like veggies or rolls. Avoid fried side dishes.
– Sub sandwiches: Opt for smaller sizes on whole wheat with lots of vegetables and mustard instead of mayo-based sauces.
Packaged baked goods and desserts
To satisfy a sweet tooth, you have to pick and choose your treats carefully by limiting sugar, bad fats and artificial additives:
– Snack cakes: Look for smaller sizes with less icing and cream fillings. Angel food, gingerbread and fig bars tend to have less fat.
– Donuts: Cake style donuts have less fat than yeast raised. Mini donuts provide portion control. Share to limit individual servings.
– Cookies: Choose crisp cookies like ginger snaps over soft and chewy which have more fat. Go for small servings of 1-2 cookies.
– Muffins: The smallest size blueberry, bran or low-fat varieties are better than jumbo bakery muffins.
– Frozen desserts: Look for fruit based sorbets and ice pops. Stick to single serve cups or popsicles instead of tubs.
– Graham crackers: These are low fat. You can break into smaller cracker sizes to control portions.
Chips and crackers
Chips, cheese crackers and buttery crackers seem harmless but can add up in calories, carbs, and bad fats. Here are some “healthier” options:
– Pretzels: These offer crunch without too much fat or sodium, choose thin sticks or mini pretzels.
– Rice cakes: Look for whole grain, lightly salted varieties to satisfy cravings for crunch.
– Pita chips: Whole wheat pita baked into chips gives you some extra fiber and nutrients.
– Popcorn: Air-popped or “light” microwave popcorn cuts out greasy oils used in cooking traditional popcorn.
– Vegetable-based crackers: Crackers made with lentils, black beans or quinoa provide more protein and nutrients.
– Reduced-fat crackers: Lower fat versions of sandwich crackers, cheese crackers, and crispbreads help control fat intake.
Cereal and granola bars
Cereals and granola bars make easy breakfasts and snacks, but many are loaded with sugar and oils. Look for these healthier kinds:
– Bran flakes: Simple, minimally processed bran options have more fiber with less added sugar. Avoid granolas with oils, sugars and “mix-ins.”
– Oatmeal: Choose unsweetened, slow-cooking oatmeal. Add your own toppings like fruit, cinnamon and nuts.
– Whole grain cereal: Varieties with 5 or more grams of fiber and less than 7 grams sugar are ideal.
– Chewy granola bars: Bars with dried fruit, nuts or seeds are more filling than chocolate chip types.
– Protein bars: Whey protein bars with less sugar can help curb hunger between meals.
– Nut-free bars: For nut allergies, look for bars with sunflower or pumpkin seeds for crunch.
Frozen meals are convenient, but most are high in fat, carbs and sodium. These picks have fewer additives and healthier ingredients:
– Low-sodium soups: Brothy soups with lots of vegetables or beans can make a filling meal. Opt for low-sodium.
– Lean protein entrees: Frozen shrimp, salmon or chicken breast along with frozen veggies are easy to mix together.
– Vegetarian meals: Soy-based crumbles and veggie patties help you get protein without the fat in beef and pork.
– High-fiber meals: Meals with 8 grams fiber or more help fill you up.
– Single-serve meals: Opt for single-serve trays instead of large family-size meals for portion control.
– Steamed veggies: Frozen plain vegetables including broccoli, cauliflower and carrot mixes provide nutrients without extras.
Healthiest junk food snacks
If eating on the go, keep these grab-and-go junk food snacks on hand to get you through a busy day:
– Sweet snacks: Unsweetened Greek yogurt with berries, a small bag of trail mix with nuts and dried fruit, Kind fruit and nut bars, mini dark chocolate bars, frozen banana “ice cream” blended from frozen bananas.
– Salty snacks: Single serving popcorn bags, roasted chickpeas, seaweed snacks, 100-calorie almond packs.
– Additional snacks: Beef jerky, protein bars, single-serve cottage cheese or string cheese, small servings of granola.
These provide a balance of protein, healthy fats and fiber to keep you feeling energized instead of running out of steam after a sugar crash. Combine with fruits and vegetables whenever possible.
Making smart choices within reason
When it comes to junk food, moderation and balance is key. The healthiest diets limit processed snacks but don’t ban them entirely. Mindful eating means allowing yourself to indulge occasionally while making educated choices most of the time. Completely restricting junk food can backfire, leading to binge eating or blowing your diet when willpower runs out.
While junk food is never truly healthy, having an occasional treat in sensible portions will not sabotage your overall eating habits. Work it into your calorie budget, get back on track at the next meal, and carry on with your healthy regimen. By picking the least offensive options, you can have your snack and eat it too – in moderation of course! Making better choices allows you to enjoy food while fueling your body.