How to Junk a Junk-Food Diet

Whether you’re trying to maintain a healthy weight or improve your health, junk food can sabotage a worthy effort. Weaning yourself from these unhealthy foods can reap big benefits.

Salted snacks, sodas, juice drinks, potato chips, candy bars, cookies, French fries, donuts, and other deep-fried foods—it’s not hard for most people to identify these as junk food. What’s much more difficult for most Americans is to eat less of them.

And therein lies the problem.

“By definition, junk food lacks nutritional value, and people who eat a lot of it leave less room for foods that provide good nutrition,” says Bonnie Taub-Dix, R.D., a New York City-based spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. “In addition, the primary ingredients in junk food—fat, sugar, and salt—are unhealthy in themselves and are linked with an increased risk for heart disease, diabetes, and obesity, which leads to high blood pressure and stroke.”

So, should all junk foods be banned? While it’s not a bad idea, unhealthy foods are here to stay. Even so, cutting back on them is worth the effort.

Look at the label

To make it happen, take time to read food labels. “Reading labels on food packages or fast-food menu brochures is one of the easiest ways to identify junk food,” says Taub-Dix.

To make use of labels:

  • Check out the ingredients. If sugar, fat, or salt is one of the first three ingredients, that food is low in healthy nutrients.

  • Check out the fat. Look at the number of fat grams. For every 5 grams of fat in a serving of a food, you’re eating the equivalent of 1 teaspoon of fat. Hence, when you down a supersize hamburger with lots of extras that contains 62 grams of fat, consider the 12 teaspoons of fat you’re eating.

  • Check out the sodium. It should be 700 mg or less per serving.

  • Check out the sugar. To do the math, divide the grams of sugar by four to get the number of teaspoons of sugar. A cereal with 28 grams of sugar per ser­ving has 7 teaspoons of sugar per bowl.

Toss the junk

Clear the junk food from your pantry and refrigerator. Read package labels and determine which foods are over the top in fat, sugar, salt, and calories. You don’t have to totally avoid these foods, but it’s best to make them the exception rather than the rule.

Healthy dining

If you eat at a fast-food restaurant, choose a chain that offers some healthy options. Then, order regular rather than supersize meals, and avoid fried and deep-fried foods, such as French fries, onion rings, and breaded-and-fried chicken or fish.

Watch portions

“If you buy potato chips, cookies, or microwave popcorn, choose those that come in 100-calorie packages,” Taub-Dix says. “Although it’s a bit more expensive, doing so is a better option than sitting down with a 1-pound bag of chips in your lap.”

Healthy choices

Come up with healthier alternatives for the junk foods you and your family crave. Choose frozen yogurt instead of ice cream and pretzels or baked tortilla chips that contain fiber instead of potato chips. Make a grilled chicken sandwich instead of one that's breaded and fried. Skip the soda and drink 100 percent fruit juice.

“It really comes down to making informed choices,” Taub-Dix says. “If you do a little homework to determine what’s in the food you eat, it’s really not that difficult to make healthier choices.”

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