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Thoughts on Junk Food

It’s Not About Perfection…

We have all heard the saying “Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good.” This comes from the French writer Voltaire who wrote “the best is the enemy of the good.”

It certainly applies to the dance we all do with junk food. It happens July 21st is National Junk Food Day. And while it may seem on the surface to be a ticket to eat as much of whatever we want, the intent is reminding us “an occasional indulgence shouldn’t impact a healthy, diverse diet and lifestyle.” Further, there are healthy versions of our favorite junk foods to entice us.

Why does this issue matter?

Lifestyle issues and behavior changes are increasingly recognized as important aspects of preventive medicine.

The challenge with junk food is rarely a knowledge gap. I have never met anyone who did not understand that a supersized portion of fries is not as nutritious as nuts or dried fruit. My challenge with having grown up in the South is soda. So again, for me as well, it is not a lack of information.

How do we approach this challenge?

I start with patients, as well as myself, with a few questions:

How many meals per week do you eat away from home?

Generally, meals eaten away from home are less nutritious than those prepared at home; they contain hidden sources of fat and are usually served in larger portions. So, when possible, try to eat at home.

How many hours of television do you watch per day?

Increased snacking while watching television can contribute to obesity. The hours spent watching television impacts how we eat and thus our health. Childhood obesity may be associated with a reduction in physical activity and an increased calorie intake. Obese children are likely to become obese adults and are at risk of developing medical problems. I try to encourage myself and other families to limit the number of hours spent watching television and instead to participate in physical activities.

How often do you eat desserts and sweets?

These foods are common sources of hidden saturated fats, since most commercially baked products contain butter and eggs. Fresh fruit, angel food cake, nonfat frozen yogurt and sherbet are the best alternatives. Other nonfat desserts are now available; however, the fat is usually replaced by increased amounts of simple sugars, so the calorie content may be equal to or sometimes greater than the fuller fat version. I have gotten into the habit of reading the nutrition label. I am amazed that the calorie content for “nonfat” items are often greater than those including fats. This increased calorie content is converted into fat in the body. Solutions include sharing the snack with a partner or substituting with fresh fruit or sherbet.

What types of beverages (including alcoholic) do you usually drink?

Regular soda sweetened iced tea and juices contain significant calories and are not advisable for those who are overweight or have conditions like diabetes. We can save hundreds of calories by drinking water with meals and snacks, and by limiting or diluting juices. I would add, for me, to quench my thirst with water, and not sweetened beverages.

A few thoughts about fat

However, some high-fat foods may have beneficial effects, such as feeling more satisfied, subsequently leading to lower food intake overall. Fats which are “ultra-processed,” like preserved meats, have been linked with higher death rates and cardiovascular problems. However, whole foods which have higher saturated fats like dairy products have been linked with lower heart disease or diabetes and obesity. Bottom line, reducing saturated fat in the diet may NOT lead to lower heart risk if you replace it with processed/refined foods.

Back to reading those labels…the fewer added ingredients and the closer to what occurs in nature…the better.

So, some practical suggestions for all of us?

If you are tempted by candies, cookies, or other confections; consider fresh or dried unsweetened whole fruits.

Instead of white breads or refined bakery products, try 100% whole-grain or sprouted/flourless breads and bakery products.

Finally, in this relationship with food in general, remember it is a marathon and not a race. As Will Rogers said, “Don’t let yesterday take up too much of today.” We can always begin again.


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