Here at The Whole U, we love talking about eating well. But talking about something is completely different than being able to do it regularly. I cannot count the number of times I have solely consumed pizza for three days (yes, that actually happened more than once), but one thing is for sure: it’s not ideal.
But like many people I know, the glaring lack of nutritional values in my diet is not enough motivation for me to make a significant change. Combined with the lack of knowledge I have on the subject, my tendency to prefer napping over cooking makes changing my cheesy bread habit to quinoa a bit of a challenge.
Luckily, dietitian and resident food expert Ben Atkinson told me I don’t necessarily have to do a complete food overhaul overnight. Food needs to taste good so people want to eat it, he said, but junk food can actually serve a specific purpose sometimes, like psychological needs, despite its lack of nutrients.
This potentially positive value of junk food is pretty limited though, and only maintains its benefit in small amounts. Atkinson made it clear to me that aside from taste, eating a lot of sugary processed food is scarily similar to just shoveling handfuls of white sugar into your mouth, and can become difficult to control in the future if you’re not careful.
“There’s research that shows it works on some of those same parts of your body that addictive drugs work on,” Atkinson said. “Cocaine and white table sugar follow some of those same metabolic pathways.”
Yet, for the most part, Atkinson said, cutting things out of your diet completely can be counterproductive. It can increase your likelihood to feel like you’re “missing out” on something you used to enjoy, like chocolate chip cookies or a greasy slice of your favorite pizza. There are only two things Atkinson recommends people do their best to absolutely avoid: fruit juice and soda.
“If you’re thirsty, you should just drink water,” Atkinson said, “and if you feel like you need some energy, eat food.”
He used my 24 ounce water bottle as an example of how juice and soda can deceive people into drinking more calories and sugar than their bodies need or can handle. If you filled the bottle with orange juice, he explained, it would probably take about 6-8 oranges to make that much juice – which if you were eating those oranges, would be fine. But when you take away the rest of the orange, you miss out on the fiber and vitamins that come with the pulp, and basically just consume sugar-packed water.
“You are what you eat”
When it comes to other junk foods, additions are a great route to go. Of course, you can always try and replace ingredients, like converting your white flour to whole wheat flour, but Atkinson emphasized the benefits of simply adding seeds, nuts, and some key vegetables into your regular meals too.
If you’re craving some pizza for lunch but don’t feel like exchanging that deliciously doughy crust for cauliflower or making it a veggie-topping-only pie, that’s fine, he said, as long as you’re not eating the whole thing by yourself and you take time to balance out the rest of your meal.
“Have the pizza you’re used to because you know it tastes good. It’s not horrible food – it’s only horrible if you’re eating six slices of pizza and that’s it,” Atkinson explained. “What’s better is if you have that same volume of food, but have three slices of pizza and maybe a fruit salad and some cucumber slices; have different things on the plate.”
As far as finding food goes, he said, it’s definitely better to make it at home, even if you’re craving a sweet treat for dessert. For example, ice cream at the store often pumps air into their containers to decrease the amount of actual ice cream you get, so even by mixing some of your own you get the chance to add in more of your favorite fruits or unprocessed ingredients – and you’ll get more bang for your buck.
Other foods that you might not be able to make at home, like red meat, are nearly just as easy to adjust for your body’s benefit. Rather than buying processed meats at a grocery store chain, buying local, grass-fed beef for your burgers can make an impact. The difference, Atkinson said, is between buying a cow that’s commercially grown and not as healthy as its locally grass fed counterpart.
Plan, prepare, plate
Taking the time to plan your food is another great way to avoid a just junk diet. For me, fast food sometimes seems quicker and less expensive than planning for or making food at home, but really, Atkinson explained, fast food isn’t much faster or cheaper at all. It still takes time and money to travel to the restaurant, wait in line, and pay. Replacing that time with making something at home can add up to a better balanced diet and a healthier relationship with food.
“We’re kind of fooling ourselves if we think we can just live off of pre-made food,” Atkinson said. “Even if it’s like making a quick sandwich for lunch the next day, I think there’s a lot to be said for doing that – making food. You know that’s going to taste good and be good for your body, and there’s some good psychological reasons we should be involved in the food we eat.”
Atkinson suggests to just keep meals simple. Not everything you make needs to be fancy or full of exotic ingredients, he told me. Just replacing a candy bar with a simple banana is a great choice. Keeping an eye out for days you might be too busy to sit down for lunch and packing some nutritional snacks with you can help avoid on-the-spot snack decisions, which might normally result in a bag of potato chips or something similarly lacking in nutrients.
Knowing how to dodge fake healthy meals can seriously help boost your health and potentially your wallet, too. Salads you buy at the store could look leafy and be full of greens, but all those great nutrients could be overshadowed by a dressing full of oils and cholesterol or cheesy, bacon-y toppings – which aren’t the best for your overall health. Smoothies are also a major sugar factory because of the sugar content in fruit juice; when commercial smoothies are made with mostly juice they can push you beyond your body’s sugar consumption capacity.
Another way folks can meet their body’s nutritional needs is to watch which habits might trigger a junk food frenzy. He may be a dietitian, but Atkinson enjoys his peanut butter cups too, and said that moving them off his desk and into a drawer instead would be an easy first step to cutting down on his sugary snack.
Though budgeting and meal plans might not be everyone’s favorite activity, Atkinson really stressed that humans need to be involved with their food on some thoughtful level. Even if it’s too expensive for you to constantly buy organic or local produce, just replacing or adding one simple wholesome ingredient can make you feel better at the end of the day.
If you find yourself struggling with food or balancing the nutrients in your diet, Atkinson told me, there’s no harm in seeing a trained professional. There may be bountiful amounts of information online and from your friends, but honestly, he explained, there’s no reason you shouldn’t talk to a dietitian.
“If your knee had some sharp pain, and you tried everything you could to fix it and it still hurt, why wouldn’t you just go see a doctor?”
Looking for some alternative or new recipes to try and don’t know where to start? Join The Whole U’s Eating Well Facebook Group and check out our virtual nutrition handouts. If you’ve already got some recipes in mind, share one or a few of your favorites with us in the comments below. Happy eating!