(adapted from Montiero, et al, 2012)
I’ve been talking a lot lately about clean eating and whole foods and the health benefits of both. In case you aren’t totally convinced about the benefits of this way of eating I’d like to do a review of why we should ”Ditch the Junk Food”.
There are seven main problems that junk foods bring into our lives that whole foods don’t:
1. Nutritionally imbalanced. Junk foods contain too much fat, sugar and/or salt. Their ingredients are often processed and unhealthy to begin with (e.g. trans fats). They also contain many chemical additives. And, of course, they lack essential vitamins, minerals, fiber, and other health-promoting compounds (e.g. antioxidants).
2. Energy-dense. Junk foods have a lot of calories (i.e. energy) and not a lot of nutrition. This makes them “energy dense.” In fact, what you want is the complete opposite, which is “nutrient dense.”
3. Hyper-palatable. Junk foods are usually made to be artificially hyper-palatable, habit-forming, and even quasi-addictive. They often lead to high blood sugar levels and can prevent your body’s natural ability to feel full. This means we can eat too much of them, sometimes without even realizing it.
4. Displace healthy meals. Often junk foods are very convenient and are eaten as (large high-calorie) snacks. The problem here is that when we eat too much of them, this can prevent us from eating a healthy nutritious meal when it’s time to do so.
5. Food imitators. Many junk foods are meant to imitate real food, even though they don’t contain nearly the nutrition that real foods have. They can mislead people into thinking that they are eating a serving of healthy food when they actually are not. Beware of deceptive labels and advertising!
6. Falsely seen as healthy. Junk foods can give a false impression of being healthy. Just because they have been fortified with synthetic vitamins, minerals, and other compounds doesn’t mean that they are a healthy food.
7. Aggressively advertised. Have you heard the advice to stay away from any foods with advertising? That is sage advice. These junk foods are profitable enough to get big advertising funding, and they erode your (and your family’s) health and wellness.
Junk foods have several problems, including:
- They’re nutritionally imbalanced
- They’re energy-dense
- They’re hyper-palatable
- They displace healthy meals
- They’re food imitators
- They’re falsely seen as healthy
- They’re aggressively advertised
How Processed Does It Have to Be to Become “Junk”?
Of course you have to know what you’re looking for. There are degrees of processing, and I want you to focus on eliminating the ones that are heavily processed. It’s true that nearly everything we purchase in the grocery store has been processed to some degree. It’s difficult to get away from any kind of processing. Even dairy, grains, and meat have gone through some processing. These are not the foods that I want you worrying about, though.
We have our more obvious processed foods like Kraft dinners, canned soups, TV dinners, frozen pizza, lunch meats, cookies, granola bars, and cheese in a jar that are our concern. A lot of the time they don’t even resemble real food, and they are loaded with flavour enhancers such as salt, MSG, sugar, or trans fats. Add in all the other man-made chemical additives, and it can get pretty easy to identify the difference between junk and a real whole food. We’ll get into some specifics below.
Ingredients to Avoid
Before we go over some of the worst additives, we’ll look at some simple rules to help you know what ingredients to avoid. You’ll find the ingredients listed on the side or back label of the product. We’re not talking about the front label claims, or even the Nutrition Facts table, but the actual ingredients that were used to make the food (or junk food).
- If you have to sound it out, put it back.
- If it sounds like your kid’s science experiment, put it back.
- If sugars are listed in the top three ingredients on the label, put it back.
- If sugars (anything with an “ose”) are listed more than 3 times on the label, put it back.
The Worst Additives
An additive is an ingredient that is added to a food product to change how it looks, tastes, and feels. These are ingredients such as bleaching agents, preservatives, colors, sweeteners, etc.
While there are lots of additives out there, some are worse than others. Make it a habit to check the ingredient labels on foods before you buy them, and take particular note of the following additives.
Glucose/fructose or high fructose corn syrup
Fructose is a natural sugar found in fruit. But when it appears on a food label, it’s more likely to be one of the favorite by-products of corn production. It’s sweeter tasting than regular sucrose (table sugar). Your body digests fructose very differently than it does glucose. Fructose is processed by the liver where it’s either converted to glycogen (stored glucose) or is used to produce fat. The body is more likely to convert fructose to fat when you’re consuming a high carbohydrate diet (like the majority of North America). And when you’re taking in excess fructose and carbs, you can easily gain weight.
A diet high in fructose can lead to:
- high blood fats, a major risk factor for heart disease
- overeating or weight gain
- insulin resistance, which can lead to type 2 diabetes
- fatty liver disease
Yeast extract or MSG
Yeast extract, or MSG, is a flavor enhancer that gives food a savory flavour. It’s an ingredient in over 40 flavor additives including sodium caseinate and hydrolyzed protein. The “G” in MSG stands for “glutamic acid,” which can act on your nervous system. Because of this, consuming large amounts of MSG has been linked with neurological symptoms in people who are sensitive to it. They can experience symptoms such as headaches or numbness/tingling. It’s also been linked with asthma attacks in some people. Not to mention that it can stimulate your taste buds, which may cause you to eat more.
Hydrogenated/partially hydrogenated vegetable oils
These are where the infamous “trans fats” come from. When hydrogen is added to a vegetable oil, it results in “hydrogenated” or “partially hydrogenated” oil. This process turns fats that are normally a liquid at room temperature into a solid. Think of vegetable oil versus margarine. Eating these fats are linked with a host of serious diseases including heart disease and cancer. They increase your “bad” cholesterol and decrease your “good” cholesterol. Yikes!
Pro Tip: Don’t trust a label that says “trans fat free” or “zero trans fats” on the front! Food manufacturers are allowed to say that as long as the food contains less than 0.2 g/serving (Canada) or 0.5 g/serving (US). This is why you should check your ingredient label to make sure the word “hydrogenated” is not there anywhere.
Tartrazine or yellow #5
This is a food dye that makes junk foods yellow. There is no other reason to put it into any product other than esthetics. It has been linked to hives, asthma, and other allergic reactions in people who are sensitive to it. This has actually been banned in some other countries, but it’s still allowed in North America.
These are found in so many processed foods that claim that they are sugar free, especially diet pop and protein powders. They are listed under the names Acesulfame potassium/ ACE K (Sunett, Sweet One), Aspartame (Equal, NutraSweet), Neotame, Saccharin (Sugar Twin, Sweet’N Low), and Sucralose (Splenda).
Many people are sensitive to artificial sweeteners, particularly aspartame. In fact anyone with PKU (phenylketonuria) absolutely must avoid it. At least one study showed an increase in seizures in children who had an aspartame-containing drink. And it may increase the frequency of headaches in adults.
Avoid the following additives on the ingredient list:
- Glucose/fructose or high fructose corn syrup
- Yeast extract or MSG
- Hydrogenated/partially hydrogenated oils
- Tartrazine or yellow #5
- Artificial sweeteners
How Do I “Ditch the Junk”?
Now that you know how to identify junk food and how to avoid some key ingredients on your labels, you are more informed than many people.
You now have the tools to know which “food products” you shouldn’t buy.
If you’d like a simple rule to think about when you’re choosing a food, it’s this:
“Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.”
This is one of the most famous quotes from Michael Pollan.
If we follow this rule, it will eliminate the majority of the junk foods on the grocery store shelves. There are almost always better choices that are worth purchasing.
Pro Tip: Almost all food in the middle aisles are off limits. Stick to the outside perimeter of the grocery store. Take a quick trip to the middle aisles to grab your grains and legumes, and then head right back with your cart to the outside aisles. Avoid temptation—don’t stay and browse in those middle aisles.
Here are some foods that are off limits.
Deli meats. Deli meats are a no go for the challenge, as they’re usually quite high in sodium, nitrates and other additives. Eating too much has been linked to colon cancer, so we’ll ditch these in favour of real meat.
Beverages. Pop, bottled lemonades, iced teas, juices, etc. all contain added sugar or artificial sweeteners. Leave them at the store. Unsweetened fruit juices still pack a punch of natural sugar and are best avoided.
Diet products. If the front of the package says low fat, diet, or fat free, then leave it. It takes a lot of processing to remove the fat from a product. The manufacturer is left with no choice but to put in additives, emulsifiers, and sugar to make it taste good again.
Anything that comes in a package with a long list of ingredients. So that means cereals, candy, canned soups, canned spaghetti, granola bars, instant noodles, frozen dinners, chocolate bars, Slurpees, cookies, Lunchables, ice cream, deli meats, etc.
Drive-throughs. It’s very difficult to find a fast food restaurant that doesn’t use fats and additives to create their dishes so just avoid them.
Conventional white bread. It can be very processed and full of additives and preservatives.
Quick Recap of Foods to Avoid
- All deli meats (opt for real meat)
- Pop, iced tea, bottled lemonade, juices
- Packaged, processed foods, frozen dinners
- Food from drive-throughs
- Diet or low-fat products
- Ingredient lists of more than 5 ingredients
- Conventional white bread
I know that seems like a lot to give up, especially in this day and age where things are so hectic and the convenience of fast foods and pre-packaged/pre-made dinners are so tempting. If you take it little by little, one baby step at a time, it won’t be so hard and before you know it, you won’t even miss all the additives, preservatives, emulsifiers, etc. and you’ll be feeling much better – full of energy and raring to go.
Is it worth it? It’s for you to decide.