by Anne Finch, Accredited Practising Dietitian for LiveLighter

Mother and son in front of vending machines

I was running late on Monday, so I picked up a muffin and a coffee at the café down the road from work on my way in.

On Tuesday I combatted the 3pm slump with a chocolate bar from the vending machine at work. Cheap Tuesdays at the movies that night called for popcorn and a soft drink.

By Wednesday, the cupboard was looking pretty bare, so I ordered pizza and scored a free bottle of soft drink.

On Thursday I met up with a friend for coffee and cake. I impulse bought some lollies at the service station on the way home.

Friday night was dinner in the city, and we ended up getting churros after dinner.

Saturday was an evening barbecue. I nibbled at chips and dip while the food was cooking, and dinner was followed by birthday cake.

On Sunday morning I was feeling a bit rough after my big night, and only a drive-thru breakfast was going to cure it. After my guilt-driven gym session, I had a muesli bar and a sports drink to tide me over until dinner.

Does any of this sound familiar?

There are lots of reasons why junk foods creep into our diet. They’re convenient, tasty, available everywhere and heavily promoted. Foods like the ones above used to be occasional “treats”, but they’re creeping in to our everyday diet. Junk foods have become so ubiquitous that we often don’t even notice when we eat them anymore.

Just the “little extras” in the scenario above pack a big wallop. There are about 20,000 kJ (almost 4800 calories) there. That’s one third of my weekly energy requirements blown on three meals and a bunch of snacks. There’s 44 teaspoons of fat (nearly half of that is saturated fat) and almost a cup and a half of sugar right there.

Make no mistake – this is junk food. These foods are energy-dense and nutrient-poor. They contain very little fibre or calcium and there’s barely a vegetable in sight!

Junk foods displace healthy, nutritious foods in your diet. Because you’re filling up on food with little to no nutritional value, you’re not getting enough of the nutrients needed for good health and vitality.

Also, because junk foods have so little nutritional substance, they don’t leave you feeling satisfied and are easy to overeat. For example, which of the below 1000 kJ options looks more filling?

snack smarter chocolate v muesli

So how can we combat junk food creeping into our diets?

Think about whether what you eat falls into any of the categories in the Australian Guide to Healthy Eating: vegetables and legumes, fruit, dairy, lean protein, grain (cereal) foods, and unsaturated fats. If it doesn’t clearly fall into one of these categories, it’s probably junk food. Keeping a food diary is another good way to make us more mindful about what we’re eating and when/why.

Once you’ve identified where you’re getting tripped up by junk food, it’s easy to make some tweaks. Try these options to avoid falling into the junk food trap!

Scenario Solution
Don’t feel like cooking Do a big cook-up when you have time and freeze individual portions in zip lock bags. Healthy meals are just a defrost away! LiveLighter’s baked tomato rice, chicken burger patties, and chicken cacciatore pasta are great freezer friendly recipes.
Don’t have time to cook See above. It’s also useful to have some rapid-fire meals in your arsenal. Baked beans or scrambled eggs on toast, and tuna and salad are all satiating, healthy meals that you can prepare in about 5 minutes.
Impulse buys and cravings Have a shopping list and stick to it. Keep a stash of healthy snacks like nuts, dried fruit and grainy crackers in case hunger takes you by surprise.
Special occasions and casual catch-ups Meet for a meal, rather than a snack. Or better yet, go for a walk, rock climbing, or dancing.

Bring healthy nibbles and dishes to potluck parties. You’d be surprised, but healthy options are often the most popular plates at work morning teas and barbecues. Try making eggplant dip with veggie sticks, a melon platter or LiveLighter’s date and muesli slice.