Ditch the junk – here’s why you should make the switch

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Here's how you can ditch junk food and switch to healthier eating habits.
Here's how you can ditch junk food and switch to healthier eating habits.
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By the time Friday night comes around, you’ve probably done your fair share of cooking and you need a break.

So what will it be? Fish and chips? A big, juicy burger with all the trimmings? A pizza with a sausage-stuffed crust? And what goes better with any of these than a sweet, ice-cold cooldrink? We’ve come to think of junk food as convenient, happy-making treats – we deserve it!

But add to that weekend meal a few muffins for breakfast during the week, pies for lunch, microwave popcorn with that movie and a few more cooldrinks and you’ve spent a large part of your week filling up on foods that offer your body almost no health benefits.

In fact, their effects are harmful, causing weight gain, low energy and increased risk of heart disease and depression, just to name a few. Ultra-processed foods account for 25-60% of a person’s daily energy intake throughout most of the world, according to a 2019 study in the British Medical Journal.

So why do we choose to eat high- kilojoule, low-nutrient foods packed with ingredients we can hardly pronounce, let alone know what they actually are?

Here’s more about junk food, why we eat it and how to switch to nutrient- dense whole foods that are packed with health-boosting properties.

Read more | These daily habits can add years to your life

WHAT IS JUNK FOOD?

It’s the opposite of fresh produce and includes foods that are highly processed (mechanical or chemical processes that change or preserve food), and most fast foods.

“Junk food gets its name from the low nutritional value it contributes to the body,” says Jacinta Ndubane, a dietician at Manor Medical Centre in Sandton.

“When we eat, we eat not only for enjoyment but to take in nutrients that support optimal growth and functioning too. “Besides being of little or no value, junk food also has detrimental effects on our health, contributing to chronic lifestyle diseases such as type 2 diabetes, obesity, high cholesterol and heart disease,” Ndubane adds.

Junk foods are low in protein, fibre, vitamins and minerals and high in sugar, artificial ingredients, trans fats and kilojoules

They include:

  • Potato chips (crisps)
  • Milk chocolate bars 
  • Desserts 
  • Fried fast food
  • Carbonated cooldrinks 
  • Bacon, polony, sausages and burger patties
  • White bread 
  • Some breakfast cereals
  • Cakes and pastries 
  • Instant noodles and soups
  • Sauces
 

WHY DO WE EAT IT?

“The high amounts and combination of artificial flavouring, sugar and salt are considered by some scientists as addictive,” Ndubane says.

A 2018 study conducted at the University of Michigan found that the 231 participants experienced withdrawal symptoms, including sadness, fatigue, cravings and increased irritability in the first two to five days after quitting junk food.

Foods high in sugar and fat cause the release of the “pleasure” neurotransmitter, dopamine, leading to the body craving junk foods more and in larger amounts. Food manufacturers are well known for aiming for the “bliss point” in foods – just the right amount of ingredients such as salt, sugar or fat to optimise its delicious taste.

“These foods bypass our normal fullness mechanisms, which is why you could eat them all day and not feel full. Over time, your body becomes less sensitive to these foods, so you have to eat more just to get the same dopamine rush,” according to Dr Darria Long Gillespie, physician and assistant professor at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center.

THE EFFECTS ON THE BODY 

Junk food doesn’t keep you satisfied for long. Because it has little to no fibre and is generally high in sugar, the body processes it very quickly, leading to spikes then dips in energy. It will leave you feeling sluggish and hungry for more. If you’re eating more junk food, you’re eating less nutritious food.

“When people drink lots of soda, for example, they are usually not getting other healthful beverages like green tea or orange juice,” says US nutrition expert, and author of 26 books on nutrition and healthy cooking, Elaine Magee.

“When they’re snacking on chips and cookies, they’re usually not loading up on fruits and vegetables.”  It’s been linked to depression. Not only has junk food been linked to an increase in chronic lifestyle conditions, but it has also been linked to depression.

Research by Deakin University’s Food & Mood Centre in Australia found that swopping processed foods for more wholegrains, vegetables and fish for 12 weeks reduced levels of moderate to severe depression.  There’s an increased risk of lifestyle diseases.

An unhealthy diet has long been linked to an increased risk in everything from intestinal conditions, hormone imbalance, chronic inflammation and fatigue to cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, stroke and heart disease.

Read more | I tried DRUM's 4-week detox program and this is how it made me feel!

MAKE THE SWITCH 

If you want to ditch junk food and include more whole, natural foods in your diet, it will take some planning and discipline. “You need to start by making that conscious decision to put your health first,” Ndubane says.

You need to remind yourself that junk food has a detrimental effect on your health, but whole foods are packed with fibre as well as antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and anticarcinogenic agents to assist immune function, brain health, protection against chronic illness, cancer and premature ageing.

Healthy food options include:
  • Wholegrains Legumes
  • Fresh (preferably) or frozen whole vegetables and fruits
  • Olive oil 
  • Lean cuts of meat
  •  Eggs Nuts.

TIPS FOR CLEANER EATING

Healthy food should not be about bland salads, so eat an assortment of colourful and varied textured and flavoured foods together.  Find other ways to deal with stress so your “rewards” move away from junk food. Consider gentle exercise, meditation, creative projects or regular meetings with a counsellor. 

If you want to indulge in junk food, plan accordingly. “This should ideally be once a month and I recommend that it not happen by chance,” Ndubane says. “Knowing that on a certain day you’re going to spoil yourself to your favourite treat can help keep cravings at bay.”

 “Limit yourself to purchasing foods that are on the outer ring of the store when shopping and you’ll generally buy whole foods,” suggests James Clear, author of Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones.

“You can also follow the five-ingredient rule when buying foods – if something has more than five ingredients in it, don’t buy it and look for healthier alternatives,” he adds. 

Learn to read labels on packaged goods. Use the table below from the Heart and Stroke Foundation of South Africa on the appropriate amounts of fat, sugar and sodium (salt) in a product.

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