Like it or not, fast food has become a part of American cuisine, so it's only fitting it has its own unofficial holiday celebrated on November 16th each year. However, products and dishes gathered under a rather unflattering umbrella term of "junk food" can be an addiction. UCSF professor of health policy Laura Schmidt in her TEDMED presentation Why we can't stop eating unhealthy foods, compares living in a modern world full of ads for junk food with living in an alcohol and drug saturated environment. "At no time in human history has our species been so bombarded with stuff designed to get us hooked. Companies compete on the very basis of creating ever more habit-forming products," says Schmidt, "and it's no different with our food. Food corporations hire scientists to engineer the most irresistible, habit-forming foods." Does it mean that it's a lost battle? No!
Of course, we could do better as a society to promote a healthier lifestyle. Yet, no matter how hard it is to resist, your free will is still your own – and you don't have to be alone. I'm in it with you! I have prepared a list of 10 simple things you can try today to break free from the siren's call of junk food. And I solemnly swear that I will try them too. Well, maybe after November 16th.
1. Start your day with protein for breakfast
If you have a syrup-treated latte and a muffin for breakfast, you consume a mountain of sugar. That makes you feel great for about an hour, but then you drag, lose focus, and get cranky and irritable, craving more sugary foods or fast food. Hello, fries and soda! But you don't want that, do you?
So instead, have some eggs or cottage cheese for breakfast. Add nuts or sliced apple with peanut butter as a treat. Proteins give you a balanced sugar level with slow-burn energy that will keep the spring in your step for longer.
2. Know your triggers
Cravings usually have an emotional component behind them. We eat and drink to bottle up our anxieties and disappointments, to distract ourselves, to cheer up when we feel down. We are much more likely to buy a bag of chips or raid the fridge when we are upset or stressed. Admit it, how many cookies have you eaten the last time your assignment deadline was looming, and you were looking for writing help online? I don't need to hear it! Just be honest with yourself.
Next time you feel the urge to eat something sugary or unhealthy, try to find what's stressing you out and address the problem instead of running away from it. This will help you be more compassionate and mindful of yourself.
3. When you crave a sugary treat, try water first
Being dehydrated often feels like being hungry. Tell me, how often after you had lunch you were like, "I need something more! I need a cookie!" Try water. Sugary cravings signal the lack of energy, and a 5% decrease in hydration can correlate to a 20% decrease in energy. According to Dr. Jody Stanislaw, a Naturopathic Doctor, who gave her TEDxSunValley talk on the dangers of daily sugar consumption, "a sugary snack will only pop you up for a little bit and then drop you." At the same time, rehydration will restore the balance and will keep you energized for longer.
4. Opt for healthier replacements for high-carb foods
The dishes you love don't have to be sugar and fat-packed junk food. They can be good guys! Try baking your favorite cookies with almond flour and stevia as a sweeter. Make pasta from zucchini noodles. Order a pizza from a place where they make a crust of cauliflower. Or eat a vegan burger made of chickpea or another protein-rich plant surrogate.
5. Opt for grilled, baked, and roasted dishes instead of fried ones
If you aren't into vegan stuff, just make your meat healthier by not frying the hell out of it. Grilled or roasted meat tastes just as great – even better! And they are good for you. In fact, the association of health risks such as cardiovascular disease, colorectal cancer, and type 2 diabetes with red meat consumption is found consecutively in studies by US researchers. However, it is often absent in studies done by European scholars. Some experts suggest this may be due to the different cuisines. They just cook the same meat healthier in Europe, folks.
6. Put fruits and veggies where you can see them
Everyone knows you have to eat more fruit. That sounds easy enough, but when you are busy, you probably just reach for whatever is in front of you. Which is, more often than not, candy or cookies in the jar. To avoid snacking on junk food, make fruits and vegetables visible and easily accessible. I used to buy fruits and vegetables I intended to snack on only to forget about them. I would find them all withered and rotten a week later on the bottom shelf of the fridge. Don't repeat my mistakes – take those fruits out! Put them in the bowl on the table in front of you. You will be surprised at how quickly you'll finish them.
7. Don't shop when you are hungry
When hungry, you make rash decisions. You compulsively put snacks and junk food into your basket because your brain knows: they are the fastest source of energy and that sweet-sweet sugar kick. Even if you think you are in control, you still go for a quicker option. Highly-processed microwavable chicken nuggets. Deep-frozen pizza. Greens in bagged mixtures, which have next to no nutrition value. Something you can just fry and eat. Something to satiate you faster. This is a slippery slope right to the aisle where they keep the raspberry-glazed donuts. Believe me, I know.
8. Shop the perimeter
If you want to consume more whole foods, try to bypass the marketing ploys by moving along the the grocery store's perimeter. Typically, highly processed food is laid out in the middle, where you cannot miss it – while fruits, vegetables, meats, fish, and dairy are tucked in the corners. So instead of wandering aimlessly with your cart, plan your route around those key sections. Also, make sure you study the labels. The rule of thumb: the fewer ingredients, the better.
9. Cut down on the junk foods instead of ditching them cold-turkey
You don't want to shock your system with abrupt changes. Remember how fast food is designed to be addictive? Give your body some time to adjust. Instead of getting your every dinner from a drive-thru window, restrict it to twice a week. Then, to once a month. And only a bit later, exclude the junk food completely. This way, burgers and fries won't haunt your fervent dreams.
10. Try new things
By experimenting with new ingredients, you will avoid the usual pitfall that most people switching from fast food to healthier options fall into. Food that isn't choke-full of salt, sugar, and added glutamates seems bland and boring to the taste buds rendered numb by the extremes. Rehabilitate and educate your palate. Try new stuff – nurture gastronomic curiosity. Don't force yourself to finish that plate of steamed broccolis if you don't find them particularly pleasant, but give them a try once in a while.
Overall, focus more on adding healthier foods than on eliminating the bad ones. You won't even notice how cravings for junk food are left for good.
Change things gradually, one step at a time. Start with choosing one or two from the list above and try practicing them for two weeks. Then, add another. It won't be long before results start manifesting themselves. As a motivating bonus, here are 10 health benefits of ditching fast food:
- Weight loss. It's easy to underestimate the calories you consume with pasties, French fries, and fatty meats. When you switch to a more balanced diet, you will consume fewer calories without starving yourself.
- Stronger immune system.With the alternatives to junk food, you will be giving your body more vital nutrients necessary for building a stronger immune system. You are likely to experience fewer colds and inflammations.
- Clearer skin, stronger nails, and shinier hair. Foods with high processed sugar and carbohydrates contents worsen your skin condition and may lead to breakouts. Poor nutrition also adversely affects and your hair and nails. Whereas eggs, fish, walnuts, and almonds rich in omega-3 fats give your skin, hair, and nails what they need to be healthy and beautiful.
- More energy and decreased cravings. Empty calories can give you a quick boost but cannot sustain you long enough. Your body just has nothing to run on. Sugary cravings are your body's desperate cry for energy when it isn't fed properly.
- Better digestion. Whole foods are rich in fiber that promotes better bowel regularity. That's why by cutting down on junk food, you are likely to experience fewer problems like bloating and constipation.
- Better mood and sleep. Lack of vitamins and nutrients increases the risk of depression, while raised glucose levels make it harder to fall asleep. When you switch to whole foods, you will feel better rested and less irritable.
- Migraine relief.Salty processed foods, cured meats like hotdogs and sausages, products high in monosodium glutamate, and artificial sweeteners are known to trigger migraines. You may see a decrease in migraines severity and frequency once you've changed your eating habits for healthier choices.
- Improved eyesight. Lutein and beta-carotene that are good for vision cannot be found in junk food but abound in carrots, spinach, and sweet potatoes.
- Better muscle tone. Protein from lentils and lean meats helps build strong and healthy muscles, so before you hit the gym, make sure you feed your body the right foods to make the most of your workout.
- Fewer health risks. Fast food contains a lot of saturated fats and sodium, which can lead to high blood pressure and kidney disease. It is also high in sugar, which without moderation leads to tooth decay, excess weight, and type II diabetes. By lowering junk food intake, you reduce all these risks for a healthier and happier life!