Most of us know that junk food is unhealthy. We know that poor nutrition is related to heart problems, high blood pressure, and a host of other health ailments. You might even know that studies show that eating junk food has been linked to increases in depression.

But if it’s so bad for us, why do we keep doing it?

There is an answer. And the science behind it will surprise you.


Why We Crave Junk Food

Steven Witherly is a food scientist who has spent the last 20 years studying what makes certain foods more addictive (and tasty) than others. Much of the science that follows is from his excellent report, Why Humans Like Junk Food.

According to Witherly, when you eat tasty food, there are two factors that make the experience pleasurable.

First, there is the sensation of eating the food. This includes what it tastes like (salty, sweet, umami, etc.), what it smells like, and how it feels in your mouth. This last quality — known as “orosensation” — can be particularly important. Food companies will spend millions of dollars to discover the most satisfying level of crunch in a potato chip. Their scientists will test for the perfect amount of fizzle in a soda. These factors all combine to create the sensation that your brain associates with a particular food or drink.

The second factor is the actual macronutrient makeup of the food — the blend of proteins, fats, and carbohydrates that it contains. In the case of junk food, food manufacturers are looking for a perfect combination of salt, sugar, and fat that excites your brain and gets you coming back for more.

Here’s how they do it…

How Science Creates Cravings

There are a range of factors that scientists and food manufacturers use to make food more addictive.

Dynamic contrast. Dynamic contrast refers to a combination of different sensations in the same food. In the words of Witherly, foods with dynamic contrast have “an edible shell that goes crunch followed by something soft or creamy and full of taste-active compounds. This rule applies to a variety of our favorite food structures — the caramelized top of a creme brulee, a slice of pizza, or an Oreo cookie — the brain finds crunching through something like this very novel and thrilling.”

Salivary response. Salivation is part of the experience of eating food and the more that a food causes you to salivate, the more it will swim throughout your mouth and cover your taste buds. For example, emulsified foods like butter, chocolate, salad dressing, ice cream, and mayonnaise promote a salivary response that helps to lather your taste buds with goodness. This is one reason why many people enjoy foods that have sauces or glazes on them. The result is that foods that promote salivation do a happy little tap dance on your brain and taste better than ones that don’t.

Rapid food meltdown and vanishing caloric density. Foods that rapidly vanish or “melt in your mouth” signal to your brain that you’re not eating as much as you actually are. In other words, these foods literally tell your brain that you’re not full, even though you’re eating a lot of calories.

The result: you tend to overeat.

In his best-selling book, Salt Sugar Fat (audiobook), author Michael Moss describes a conversation with Witherly that explains vanishing caloric density perfectly…

I brought him two shopping bags filled with a variety of chips to taste. He zeroed right in on the Cheetos. “This,” Witherly said, “is one of the most marvelously constructed foods on the planet, in terms of pure pleasure.” He ticked off a dozen attributes of the Cheetos that make the brain say more. But the one he focused on most was the puff’s uncanny ability to melt in the mouth. “It’s called vanishing caloric density,” Witherly said. “If something melts down quickly, your brain thinks that there’s no calories in it . . . you can just keep eating it forever.”

Sensory specific response. Your brain likes variety. When it comes to food, if you experience the same taste over and over again, then you start to get less pleasure from it. In other words, the sensitivity of that specific sensor will decrease over time. This can happen in just minutes.

Junk foods, however, are designed to avoid this sensory specific response. They provide enough taste to be interesting (your brain doesn’t get tired of eating them), but it’s not so stimulating that your sensory response is dulled. This is why you can swallow an entire bag of potato chips and still be ready to eat another. To your brain, the crunch and sensation of eating Doritos is novel and interesting every time.

Calorie density. Junk foods are designed to convince your brain that it is getting nutrition, but to not fill you up. Receptors in your mouth and stomach tell your brain about the mixture of proteins, fats, carbohydrates in a particular food, and how filling that food is for your body. Junk food provides just enough calories that your brain says, “Yes, this will give you some energy” but not so many calories that you think “That’s enough, I’m full.” The result is that you crave the food to begin with, but it takes quite some time to feel full from it.

Memories of past eating experiences. This is where the psychobiology of junk food really works against you. When you eat something tasty (say, a bag of potato chips), your brain registers that feeling. The next time you see that food, smell that food, or even read about that food, your brain starts to trigger the memories and responses that came when you ate it. These memories can actually cause physical responses like salivation and create the “mouth-watering” craving that you get when thinking about your favorite foods.

All of this brings us to the most important question of all.

Food companies are spending millions of dollars to design foods with addictive sensations. What can you and I do about it? Is there any way to counteract the money, the science, and the advertising behind the junk food industry?

How to Kick the Junk Food Habit and Eat Healthy

The good news is that the research shows that the less junk food you eat, the less you crave it. My own experiences have mirrored this. As I’ve slowly begun to eat healthier, I’ve noticed myself wanting pizza and candy and ice cream less and less. Some people refer to this transition period as “gene reprogramming.”

Whatever you want to call it, the lesson is the same: if you can find ways to gradually eat healthier, you’ll start to experience the cravings of junk food less and less. I’ve never claimed to have all the answers (or any, really), but here are three strategies that might help.

1. Use the “outer ring” strategy and the “5 ingredient rule” to buy healthier food.

The best course of action is to avoid buying processed and packaged foods. If you don’t own it, you can’t eat it. Furthermore, if you don’t think about it, you can’t be lured by it.

We’ve talked about the power of junk food to pull you in and how memories of tasty food in the past can cause you to crave more of it in the future. Obviously, you can’t prevent yourself from ever thinking about junk food, but there are ways to reduce your cravings.

First, you can use my “outer ring” strategy to avoid processed and packaged foods at the grocery store. If you limit yourself to purchasing foods that are on the outer ring of the store, then you will generally buy whole foods (fruits, vegetables, meat, eggs, etc.). Not everything on the outer ring is healthy, but you will avoid a lot of unhealthy foods.

You can also follow the “5 ingredient rule” when buying foods at the store. If something has more than 5 ingredients in it, don’t buy it. Odds are, it has been designed to fool you into eating more of it. Avoid those products and stick with the more natural options.

2. Eat a variety of foods.

As we covered earlier, the brain craves novelty.

While you may not be able to replicate the crunchy/creamy contrast of an Oreo, you can vary your diet enough to keep things interesting. For example, you could dip a carrot (crunchy) in some hummus (creamy) and get a novel sensation. Similarly, finding ways to add new spices and flavors to your dishes can make eating healthy foods a more desirable experience.

Moral of the story: eating healthy doesn’t have to be bland. Mix up your foods to get different sensations and you may find it easier than eating the same foods over and over again. (At some point, however, you may have to fall in love with boredom.)

3. Find a better way to deal with your stress.

There’s a reason why many people eat as a way to cope with stress. Stress causes certain regions of the brain to release chemicals (specifically, opiates and neuropeptide Y). These chemicals can trigger mechanisms that are similar to the cravings you get from fat and sugar. In other words, when you get stressed, your brain feels the addictive call of fat and sugar and you’re pulled back to junk food.

We all have stressful situations that arise in our lives. Learning to deal with stress in a different way can help you overcome the addictive pull of junk food. This could include simple breathing techniques or a short guided meditation. Or something more physical like exercise or making art.

With that said, if you’re looking for a better written and more detailed analysis of the science of junk food, I recommend reading the #1 New York Times best-seller, Salt Sugar Fat (audiobook).

Where to Go From Here

One of my goals with this article is to reveal just how complex poor eating habits can be. Junk food is designed to keep you coming back for more. Telling people that they “need more willpower” or should “just stop eating crap” is short-sighted at best.

10 healthy alternatives to unhealthy food

Try substituting sugary sweets with dried fruits like mango, apple, or cherry.

We know that it can be tempting to indulge in treats and over-eat. A chocolate bar here, a burger there – what’s the harm?

While there’s no problem with a bit of indulgence from time to time, regularly eating unhealthy food can cause a whole host of health issues, including heart conditions, stroke and type 2 diabetes.

The NHS advises that “within a healthy, balanced diet, a man needs around 10,500kJ (2,500Kcal) a day to maintain his weight. For a woman, that figure is around 8,400kJ (2,000Kcal) a day.”

If you’re not a fan of carrot sticks and celery, here are some healthier alternatives to some unhealthy foods. Swapping one for the other can enable you to carry on eating the same kinds of things, while doing your health a favour.

Here are our 10 healthy alternatives to unhealthy food:

1. Chocolate / Dark Chocolate

If you make sure you’re eating organic dark chocolate instead of milk or white chocolate, you’ll find it’s much better for you. Dark chocolate is actually quite nutritious and contains fibre, iron, magnesium, copper, potassium, phosphorus, zinc and selenium – all of which are good for you. It’s also full of antioxidants, which help keep you young.

2. Chips / Sweet Potato Wedges

It’s time to bin the chip-shop chips and opt for something healthier and, dare we say it, tastier. Sweet potatoes have high levels of beta-carotene and have been proven to raise levels of vitamin A in our blood. They’re also full of vitamins B6, C and D. Vitamin B6 may help reduce levels of degenerative diseases and heart attacks.

3. Ice cream / frozen yogurt

Ice cream is essentially churned, frozen fat and sugar. Frozen yogurt is a lot lower in both and contains probiotics to help our digestive system. However, it is still quite high in calories and you cut out any health benefits if you go and cover it in melted toffee. Try pairing it with fresh fruit or nuts as a sweet and tasty replacement for your dessert.

4. Beer / spirits or wine

Here’s a scary fact – drinking five pints of lager a week adds up to 44,200kcal over a year or the same as eating 221 doughnuts. A pint of beer can have around 180 calories in it while a single measure of spirits has just 61 calories. Match that with a soda water and some fresh lime juice and you’ve got a less fattening alternative. Even red wine has fewer calories, at 159 a glass, and it includes antioxidants.

5. Burgers / Chicken burger

Your standard burger can have around 350 calories in it. However, if you were to replace this with a grilled chicken breast, it’d be just 220 calories –and that’s for a large 150g piece of chicken.

6. Butter / Margarine

While debates on the health benefits of butter versus margarine often bring up the various additives in margarine, by buying a good quality, olive oil spread and using it when baking, you can make your cupcakes light as air as well as being a bit healthier.

7. Pizza / Pitta pockets

Layers of cheese, thick dough and salty sausages are all tasty but not very healthy. Instead of ordering a pizza, why not make some homemade pitta pockets. Use warmed, wholewheat pitta breads and fill them with spicy chicken and salad for a healthier dinner.

8. Crisps / Popcorn

Crisps are full of salt and saturated fat and, as they are often put out in a bowl, it’s hard to judge how much you’re eating. Replace them with lightly salted or plain popcorn for a healthier snack. It’s a good idea to buy plain popcorn and cook it yourself so you can measure how much salt you want to add. Popcorn is also full of anti-oxidants, loaded with fibre, and low in calories.

9. Sweets / dried fruit

Most of us have a sweet tooth, but high-sugar sweets have little to no nutritional value. Replace them with healthier dried fruits like mango, apple or cherry. For a super-healthy alternative, try dried goji berries, which are full of nutrients.

10. Cake / Banana Bread

Most cakes aren’t particular healthy, but if you want an option that has some benefits try a whole wheat, organic banana bread. It’s full of fibre and the whole wheat contains potassium, magnesium and zinc.

Mar 16, 2015Dr Anup Jethwa

How can you resist? Junk food is so tasty because it has all the tempting ingredients we can never get enough of—but we also know how eating excessive amounts of junk food can ruin your weight loss goals and send you back into poor health.

Luckily for you, junk food is easy to replace with healthy, natural snacks. Try the following healthy snack alternatives next time you’re hit with a serious craving to help you stay on track with your weight loss goals.

The Savory Stuff

We could all sit down with tasty, salty snacks and munch on them all day. Their flavor is intense, and they don’t make you feel full. That’s why you need to start replacing your favorite savory treats with some of these healthy versions of junk food that are low in calories.


Replicate pizza’s best flavors by using its healthiest ingredients to create snack-sized vegetable substitutes. Mini pizzas with tomato sauce, vegan cheese, and eggplant and mushroom toppings make a delicious alternative to one of our favorite junk foods. You can use crispy fried zucchini as a crust to eliminate calories from bread.

Cauliflower crust is another healthy and great-tasting alternative to pizza dough. When prepared correctly, the cauliflower crisps to a consistency that feels and tastes like thin pizza dough. Throw your favorite toppings on the crust (with half the amount of cheese) for a nutrient-rich pizza alternative you can snack on without shame. Click here for a list of pizza crust alternatives you’ll enjoy cooking and eating!

Mac and Cheese

Don’t worry, you don’t have to stop eating macaroni and cheese—there are lots of healthy pasta alternatives that are low in calories and high in nutrient value. Try brown rice pasta or butternut squash in place of traditional macaroni and add cashew cheese with finely chopped nuts to create new and exciting flavors.


Potatoes are very nutritious, but the excessive amount of oil needed to make them crispy clogs your arteries. Bake your fries in coconut or olive oil for a healthy alternative—their flavor may surprise you. Here’s a great recipe to get you hooked on healthy fries that will help you stay away from the oily and salty standard.


Oily chips violate a healthy diet just as much as oily fries. Fortunately, kale chips and seaweed snacks offer a delicious alternative: Both mimic the texture of potato chips, but they tend to be thinner and provide more health benefits. Kale and seaweed chips are so popular that major food brands started making them with the same explosive flavors as potato chips.


Along with mac and cheese, you can make other pastas with vegetable substitutes that provide just as much flavor as traditional pastas. Use your favorite ingredients and toppings over pasta alternatives to create an especially satisfying meal. Here are some of our favorite pasta alternatives:

  • Spaghetti squash
  • Eggplant lasagna
  • Cabbage noodles
  • Cauliflower couscous
  • Onion noodles

The Sweet Stuff

Sweet snack alternatives are great for curbing the powerful cravings you feel throughout the day. Reduce your sugar and fat intake with some of these healthy alternatives to sweet junk food.


The answer to your chocolate cravings is easy: Switch from milk chocolate to dark chocolate! Chocolate bars and desserts with a higher cacao percentage help your body’s systems run smoothly. Besides that, when you consume chocolate without milk, you increase the value of the chocolate’s nutrients.

Ice Cream

We’re lucky to live in a time when ice cream alternatives are commonplace. Several newer companies are finding ways to make vegan ice cream that’s still light, fluffy, creamy, and full of flavor—all for a fraction of the calories.

You can also try making your own vegan ice cream with cashews or frozen bananas. Click here for a list of delicious vegan ice cream recipes.


The high amount of sugar in most candy is likely be stored as fat if you don’t immediately burn it off. Candy uses added sugars that are digested and stored differently than natural sugars.

The natural sugar in grapes, strawberries, peaches, watermelon, and all your favorite fruits provides energy in a way that’s less likely to lead to obesity. For easy junk food substitutes that satisfy your sugar cravings, try freezing grapes or watermelon.


If you’re a pancake lover, you probably already know about banana pancakes. They are more flavorful than traditional pancakes, cook up just as fluffy, and absorb syrup just as deeply. Of all the junk food alternatives, banana pancakes might be the easiest to make and enjoy. If banana isn’t your favorite, try these other healthy pancake varieties:

  • Coconut flour pancakes
  • Oatmeal pancakes with nectarines and cherries
  • Whole wheat yogurt pancakes
  • Blueberry chia pancakes
  • Almond flour pancakes

The Thirst Quencher

Americans love soda. Unfortunately, these beverages add a large amount of sugar to our diets. Thankfully, there are plenty of soda alternatives that provide more health benefits than their sugary counterparts.


Flavored soda is the most outstanding offender in the beverage world. Its unique flavors and bubbles are a tempting treat.

If it’s the bubbles you crave, drink more sparkling water instead. It now comes in a large variety of unsweetened flavors that mimic traditional soda flavors. If you still want a little sugar with your carbonated beverage, try drinking kombucha. It mixes serious flavor with wonderful gastrointestinal benefits.

Keep It Consistent

Make sure to be disciplined about eating the right foods. When you’re consistent with your new diet, you’ll reap the rewards faster and feel lighter and healthier. You can also learn about mindful eating practices and emotional eating to help yourself stay on track. If you’re having trouble sticking to your diet, seek help from one of our weight loss counselors for extra support and motivation. Keep this list handy as a constant reminder to incorporate more healthy alternatives to junk food into your diet.

Junk food has given snacking a bad name.

“Snacking in itself isn’t a bad thing,” says Elaine Magee, PhD, RD, author of numerous nutrition books, including Someone’s in the Kitchen With Mommy and The Good News Eating Plan for Type II Diabetes.

Magee firmly believes in eating several small meals during the day — “and that includes quality, healthy snacks,” she tells WebMD.

Her philosophy: Eat when you’re hungry, stop when you’re comfortable. “There’s a difference between stuffed and comfortable,” she says. “If you truly follow that concept, you should be hungry every two or three hours.”

Here’s Magee’s list of favorite healthy snacks — plus the “bad guys” — taken from another of her books, Fight Fat and Win: Light Meals and Snacks:

Popcorn. The fat in those microwave brands is the only negative here. Look for the healthier versions — 98% fat-free. If you opt for plain popcorn, it’s OK to drizzle a little margarine (one with no trans-fats) or butter. “It’s better than full-fat brands, where you can’t control the fat they add,” says Magee.

Ice cream. Get real. You know ice cream isn’t an everyday snack. “But there are good choices in ice-creamland,” says Magee. Breyer’s Light Vanilla is one of the best-tasting vanillas. Also, Smart Ones fudge bars are “really delicious — they hit your chocolate and ice cream craving, plus they have four grams soluble fiber, 80 calories, hardly any fat, and very good flavor.”

Cheese and crackers. Only if you pick a reduced-fat cheese that tastes good, like Kraft 2% and Jarlsberg Light, she advises. Lower fat means more protein, she adds. Crackers should be whole grain, low-fat, for this to be a healthy snack. The more fat in the cracker, the more trans-fat it will contain.

Healthy alternatives to your 6 favourite junk foods

Popular for a quick pick-me-up or a hug-like dose of comfort, junk food is unfortunately a go-to for many of us. However, just a few simple tweaks could give you a similar taste, texture and flavour of your favourite treats – minus the empty calories.

Diving into a doughnut or sneaking in a greasy burger can be a party for your tastebuds, but not great for your waistline. The good news is by working out what’s fuelling your desire for a diet-busting snack or meal, you can choose a healthier option that’ll meet your needs without the unnecessary calories.

Junk food cravings

Junk food cravings can be triggered by anything from wanting a quick boost of energy to a development of bad habits over time. For example, if you eat a choccie bar at 3pm for a few days in a row, your pleasure-seeking brain will soon set off a silent alarm that time each day, according to clinical nutritionist Victoria Malouf. Food is also a way for us to connect to happy memories and gain comfort, says director of The Dietologist Stefanie Valakas, accredited practising dietitian and nutritionist.

Sleep deprivation can also trigger a snack attack. “Ghrelin is the hunger hormone produced in your stomach, regulating your appetite and telling you when you should eat. This can spike when you’re lacking sleep,” says nutritionist and naturopath, Jess Blair.

Polycystic ovary syndrome, a hormonal disorder affecting nearly 20% of Australian women may kick off sugar cravings due to variations in blood sugar levels across the day, Valakas adds. This can be tricky to diagnose, so it’s best to talk to your GP if you have concerns.

Healthy alternatives to junk food

These oat and cinnamon breakfast cookies are full of slow-releasing carbohydrates, healthy fats and fibre, and a range of nuts and seeds. If this particular combination of ingredients doesn’t work for you, the internet is alive with healthy biscuit, cake and sweet slice recipes to choose from (check out this tasty coconut and choc blender brownie recipe or these choc-coffee energy balls.) Look for recipes low on sugars and packed with plenty of whole grains and healthy nuts, seeds or veggies.

It’s not easy staying healthy. Junk food is always egging us to quit, sitting on supermarket shelves and taunting us to break our diets. Sometimes, the urge to drop kick that meal management system is too much to ignore, and we just have to cheat a little bit. Luckily, there are some healthy alternatives to junk food out there that can let us cheat, without dreading our scales.

1. Instead of Potato Chips: Baked Zucchini Chips

Despite its tasty nature, a potato chip is the last thing that comes to mind when thinking of anything healthy. Junk food has given the potato a bad rap, poor guy. It’s hard to resist cheating with this tasty little snack, though, so in order to quiet the beast within, try cooking up some oven baked kale chips instead. They may not have the same salty crunch of their bagged cousins, but kale chips are easy to make, and are a much healthier way to cheat on your diet than the alternative.

2. Instead of Caramel Corn: Popcorn

It sounds weird, doesn’t it? Substituting one snack food for another? Well, when you get past the mountains of salt and butter that’s usually found at movie theaters, popcorn can actually be an alright snack to cheat on your diet with. Readers may remember this guy from our piece on Planning Ahead With Healthy Office Snacks. Popcorn is a great thing to munch on when your jaws itching to chew on something,

3. Instead of Candy Bars: Cacao Nibs

You can kick that craving for chocolate right in the teeth without having to stuff yourself full of sugar and calories. Cacao nibs are stuffed with chocolate flavor, and are sort of like nature’s own healthy junk food. They’re taken straight from the bean and provide you with antioxidants and other minerals as well as a tasty snack.

4. Instead of Beef Jerky: €¦Beef Jerky

Now hear us out. There are a lot of jerky brands that are just stuffed with sodium nitrate and MSG, which are awful for your diet, but not all of them! Many gourmet and all natural brands have a relatively low sodium count, and the protein that dried meat adds to your diet is nothing to sneeze at. Just don’t go overboard and make them your main source of meat. We’re trying to stick to a diet here, after all.

5. Instead of Cookies: Homemade Granola

Chuck out the cookie jar and instead keep a bag of some homemade granola. There are healthy packs of granola out on the store shelves, but they tend to have a lot sugar and calories in them. Remember, making something yourself lets you control everything going into it, so don’t be afraid to cook something up yourself. You can even use this treat as a healthy dessert alternative, which you can read more about here.

6. Instead of Ice Cream: Frozen Greek Yogurt

Lets face it, ice cream is delicious, but it sucks for maintaining any semblance of a diet. A healthy junk food alternative is to go for some frozen Greek yogurt instead and mix in some fruit for flavor. Not only does the yogurt come with less calories, it also can be a fair source of protein. Keeping your bodybuilding meal bag filled with the food that’s best for you is tough. Sometimes you just need to reward yourself for jogging that extra mile, or for hitting your new milestone on the weight rack. This list of healthy junk food alternatives won’t replace your diet, but hopefully it will help keep you on the right track towards your goals. Know any good healthy alternatives we missed? Let us know in the comments below!

8 unhealthy foods that aren’t that bad for you

We’ve all been there before: in front of the TV, rapt in an intense drama only to look down after 10 minutes and stare at the bottom of an empty bowl of junk food. The regret can be overwhelming, but it doesn’t need to be. According to experts, not all unhealthy foods are necessarily bad for you.

WATCH BELOW: Pre- and post-workout snacks

4:04 Pre- and post-workout snacks Pre- and post-workout snacks

“There are some foods that aren’t as bad as others,” says Anar Allidina, a registered dietitian. “In fact, some of the ‘healthy’ alternatives are actually worse for you. Baked potato chips aren’t actually made from potatoes, but a starch additive and lots of chemicals. If you look at the ingredient list on a bag of regular potato chips, they’re made from actual potatoes.”

This doesn’t mean you should go hog-wild on a bag of Ruffles every night in the name of health, but it does mean that health advocates and marketing have vilified some junk or snack foods as unhealthy. In reality, some are not that bad when consumed in moderation.

Story continues below advertisement

So, if you’re guilty of snacking on one of these foods, stop beating yourself up for it. Just keep portion control in mind and snack away.


Not all cookies are created equally, Allidina says. She points to Animal Crackers and graham crackers as good choices if you’re craving something sweet because they’re lower in sugar than your average chocolate chip variety.

But if you’re craving something more substantial, opt for a biscuit with nuts, advises nutritionist Ciara Foy.

“Cookies that have nuts and seeds in them are going to be better for you, because the fat and the small amount of protein you get from the nuts will balance out the sugar,” she says.

No doubt, the fact that chocolate has been taken off the naughty list is music that has been resonating in people’s ears for some time now. But Foy says it doesn’t just apply to dark chocolate.

“Even milk chocolate is good as long as it has at least 50 per cent cacao.”

READ MORE: 6 nutrition experts on what they would order at a fast food restaurant

She says one of the main reasons people crave chocolate is because it’s high in magnesium — the fourth most abundant mineral in the body that is most often depleted because of stress. Magnesium contributes to hundreds of biochemical reactions in the body, including creating energy, forming protein and regulating the nervous system. It’s also credited with lowering blood sugar, fighting depression and reducing insulin resistance. In this case, the darker the chocolate (at least 70 per cent) the better it is.

Story continues below advertisement


“Really, the only problem with cheese is that most people can’t control themselves when they eat it,” says Abby Langer, registered dietitian. “People think it’s bad for them because it’s high in saturated fat, but we know the saturated fats found in milk products may not affect us the way those found in beef do.”

She also points out that cheese is a good source of calcium and that there is solid research to indicate that dairy has anti-inflammatory properties.

Ice cream

Which brings us to another good source of calcium: ice cream. One scoop of a good quality ice cream will not only satisfy your craving for something sweet, but it’ll also provide a boost to your bones, Langer says.

“Don’t bother with the low-fat varieties, either. They just have more additives to make them palatable,” she says. “Have a scoop of beautiful, high-quality ice cream and get over it. Just be sure to control it to one scoop.”

Beef jerky

That convenience store staple that’s more often associated with long-haul truckers than at-home Netflix watchers, is healthier than you might think.

READ MORE: This is what your breakfast, lunch and dinner calories actually look like

“It has zero grams of sugar and is pretty lean, plus it provides a lot of protein,” Allidina says.

Story continues below advertisement

She says to look for brands that have low sodium or even try making it at home. This is the recipe she recommends.


A movie night staple, popcorn has received a bum rap over the years due to the excessive amounts of sodium and butter the movie theatre kind is doused with. But at-home popcorn can be just as tasty and a lot healthier.

“Popcorn gives you fibre and protein and satisfies that crunchy, salty craving we often have,” Allidina says. “Plus it has a lot of volume — you can have three cups of popcorn and it’s only 100 calories.”

If you make popcorn at home (either in an air popper or on the stove) she suggests playing around with different options like butter, coconut or olive oil. If you choose to buy popcorn instead, look for air-popped brands.

Salted nuts

As far as Langer is concerned, it’s time to stop vilifying salted nuts.

“The science is out with salt,” she says. “We know that too much isn’t good for us, but we also know that salty foods are often ultra-processed. So, it’s hard to tease out if the salt is unhealthy or if it’s the food the salt is in.”

Story continues below advertisement

She says unless you have an issue with high blood pressure and are on a low sodium diet, go ahead and enjoy an ounce of salted nuts as a healthy a delicious snack.

READ MORE: The trendiest diets of 2017 and what nutrition experts say about them

Cold cereal

This one may surprise you since nutrition experts have been painting cereal (yes, all cereals) as loaded with sugar and refined carbohydrates, but Langer says it’s actually a good choice as a bedtime snack.

“If you’re craving something sweet, even a bowl of Lucky Charms is better than a slice of cake. You’ll get protein from the milk and, depending on the type of cereal, some whole grains. It’s not that big of a deal.”

© 2017 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

Healthy Fast Food: At Home

Stock Your Cabinets With Fast, Nutritious Food

Planning helps you pull your own fast-food act together. Get out the calendar and figure out your food needs for the week ahead. Make a quick list. Now it’s time to shop. Consider stocking:

  • Whole-grain breads and cereals, pasta, and prepared pizza crust.
  • Milk, reduced-fat shredded cheese, eggs, canned tuna, canned beans, peanut butter, lean ground beef patties, chicken, and meatballs.
  • Fresh, frozen, or no-added-salt canned vegetables; fresh and dried fruit; and fruit canned in juice.
  • Quick-cooking grains such as 10-minute brown rice and whole-wheat couscous.
  • Cartons of 100% orange juice, milk, applesauce, peanut butter, and yogurt in your fridge and cabinets. These work great for road trips, too.

Work the Weekends

Just a couple of hours spent cooking main courses one or two weekends a month works wonders for whipping up fast and healthy food on hectic weeknights. Tips to try:

  • Let your slow cooker save you time. Throw the ingredients for chili or beef stew in and turn to other activities.
  • Roast a chicken or turkey. This frees you up to concentrate on projects around the house, too.
  • Put together a pan or two of lasagna.
  • Make double batches of anything you cook, and freeze half.

Super Sandwich Suppers

Sandwiches can help you get supper on the table super fast. For tasty fast-food alternatives, try:

  • Pre-formed lean beef burger patties or veggie burgers. Serve on whole-grain buns. Pair with cooked frozen carrots and peas; fruit; and milk.
  • Barbecue pulled pork served on whole grain buns with corn and fruit on the side.
  • Tuna melts with reduced-fat cheese on whole-wheat bread, and salad.
  • Quesadillas made with low-fat cheese, fat-free refried beans, and leftover chicken served with a green salad.

Breakfast for Dinner

“Eggs are the basis of several quick and nutritious dinners,” Neville says. For example, try:

  • Scrambled eggs served in whole-wheat pita pockets with salsa and low-fat grated cheese; salad; milk or 100% juice, such as orange juice fortified with calcium and vitamin D.
  • Whole-grain French toast, applesauce for dipping, and milk.
  • Omelets made with leftover cooked vegetables and served with whole-grain rolls, fruit and milk.
  • Hard cook a half dozen eggs. Toss them in salads, or use them for grab-and-go snacks or lunch.

Thanks to apps like Pinterest and Instagram, being a “foodie” has become trendy; with millions of diners whipping out their cell phones and doing their best to take gorgeous shots of their latest meal.

As a whole this has been a positive (albeit annoying) movement, with more Americans proudly taking note of what they put in their bodies; opting for colorful organic vegetables and trips to farmers markets – in part so they can share their healthy cargo with all their followers.

“Eating Clean” is fashionable these days. And given this country’s battle with obesity, that’s a step in the right direction. Unfortunately, the byproduct of this shift in food culture is that many of us have become culinary snobs; looking down on those who lean towards less glamorous dining experiences.

“I can’t believe they’re going to McDonalds”

“Why is she taking her kids to the drive thru?”

“How can anyone eat that garbage?”

These are sentiments a lot of us make without realizing how blatantly classist they are. While kale, quinoa and coconut water might be staples on your shopping list – for many low income families fast food is a lot more cost effective than a trip to Whole Foods. Not to mention the fact that there are some parts of the nation that have become food deserts altogether.

According to Wikipedia a food desert is

..a geographic area where affordable and nutritious food is difficult to obtain, particularly for those without access to an automobile. Food deserts usually exist in rural areas and low-income communities. Some research links them to diet-related health problems in affected populations. Food deserts are sometimes associated with supermarket shortages and food security.

Whether you find yourself living in a food desert or are simply on a restricted grocery budget, that doesn’t mean all hope is lost. Below we’ve compiled a list of some nutritiously sound fast food alternatives from popular eateries.


Meal One: Premium Caesar Salad with Grilled Chicken and low-fat balsamic vinaigrette plus Fruit ‘n Yogurt Parfait; 375 calories, 9.5g fat

Meal Two: Grilled Honey Mustard Snack Wrap plus small french fries; 480 calories, 19g fat

Meal Three: Fruit and Maple Oatmeal; 290 calories, 4g fat

Meal Four: Egg White Delight McMuffin plus apple slices; 265 calories, 8g fat

Kid’s Meal: Put together a healthy alternative for the little ones with four chicken McNuggets, plus apple slices and low fat milk; 395 calories, 20.5g fat.

Tips for making healthier choices no matter where you go:

  • Skip the fries and get a salad, fruit or veggies as a side order
  • Get your burger without the bun
  • Hold the mayonnaise and reach for low-calorie condiments like mustard
  • Go easy on special sauces and always get your dressing on the side.
  • Say no to bacon, cheese, onion rings, sour cream and other heavy toppings.
  • Don’t drink your calories! Avoid sodas and milkshakes altogether.
  • Portion control – if the servings are huge, immediately set aside half to take home.
  • Look at the Kids Menu. There are surprisingly healthy options in these sections.

While being mindful at the drive-thru takes some getting used to, eating healthy “on the go” isn’t impossible. Your waistline and your budget will both be better off.

This post originally appeared at The Grio and is sponsored by McDonalds.

image: Getty

20 Surprisingly Healthy Fast Food Orders

Diet plans can be time-consuming. Sometimes it seems like fast food is the only way to cram a meal into a busy schedule. Maybe you just LOVE the taste of a Wendy’s burger. Either way, we all know it’s easy to overload on fast food menu items with high counts of trans fat, sodium and additives that can do some serious harm to your health.

Did you know there are healthy fast food options on the menu, too? While most nutritionists say eating fast food isn’t one of the best weight loss tips they could give to clients, there are plenty of dishes loaded with nutrients and low in calories they recommend for when you’re in a bind. A lot of fast food joints are also offering vegetarian options now! If you’re curious about scary ingredients hiding in your favorite entree, check out the nutrition and ingredient information on the restaurant’s website to decide whether or not to order. Save yourself time and read on for 20 nutritionist-approved menu items you can trust. Some of these are sure to surprise you! But remember: just because some restaurant chains are serving up Eat This!-approved meals, it doesn’t mean all items are safe. Continue to stay vigilant by watching out for these #1 Worst Menu Option at 40 Popular Restaurants.


Starbucks’ Oatmeal

“I will stop off at Starbucks when I’m flying,” says Marisa Moore, MBA, RDN, LD, and owner of Marisa Moore Nutrition. “In the morning, the oatmeal is a tummy saver. It’s an easy way to get some fiber and protein. I love that they provide the dried fruit, nuts, sugar and other toppings on the side so you get to control how sweet you want it to be—if any at all.”


Panera’s Roasted Beet Quinoa & Citrus Salad

“I love Panera as they do not use any artificial ingredients or preservatives. Their salads are great, but my favorite is the Roasted Beet, Quinoa and Citrus Salad. This seasonal entree is a great mix of whole grains, vegetarian proteins from the nuts and cheese and a whole lot of fiber from the kale. The sodium content is a bit high, so I would ask for the dressing on the side to likely minimize the total amount of sodium eaten in this meal,” Leah Kaufman, MS, RD, CDN, a New York City-based registered dietitian, tells us. Lauren Slayton MS RD of Foodtrainers adds, “Panera’s beet, quinoa salad is my go-to, it’s an added bonus that you can get a full or half portion.”


McDonald’s Artisan Grilled Chicken Sandwich

“A healthier option at McDonald’s would be their artisan grilled chicken sandwich with a side of apple slices instead of fries. The artisan grilled chicken sandwich contains 380 calories, 7 grams fat, 44 grams carbohydrate, and 37 grams protein. Adding the side of apple slices only adds 20 calories and 4 grams of carbohydrate compared to a small fries which would add 230 calories, 10 grams fat, 30 grams carbohydrate and 3 grams protein,” explains Gina Hassick, RD, LDN, CDE.


Chick-Fil-A’s Grilled Chicken Nuggets

“Believe it or not, Chick-Fil-A has a grilled chicken nugget option.” says Kaufman. “With only 140 calories and 25 grams protein, this high protein entree is a great alternative to the traditional fried chicken nuggets. Make sure to pair this with a vegetable and you can create a complete and well-rounded meal.” In fact, Chick-Fil-A’s nuggets are so good, we ranked them #1 in our exclusive report of Every Fast Food Chicken Nugget—Ranked!


Starbucks’ Egg & Cheddar Sandwich

“When I’m short on time in the morning, I’ll often pick up an egg-and-cheese breakfast sandwich,” Bannan tells us. “For less than 300 calories (280 to be exact!), it provides 14 grams of protein for staying power. Plus, it’s a source of calcium, iron, and vitamin A. While the sandwich is higher in sodium than if I made it at home, it’s much lower in sodium than most grab-and-go breakfast offerings.”


Wendy’s Junior Hamburger

“We would go for a Junior Hamburger with lettuce, tomato, onion, pickle, mustard or ketchup, as well as a garden side salad with pomegranate vinaigrette and spicy cashews and apple slices, all clocking in at 460 calories in total,” Willow Jarosh MS, RD, and Stephanie Clarke, MS, RD, co-owners of C&J Nutrition and co-authors of The Healthy, Happy Pregnancy Cookbook tell us. “We like this meal because it’s still a burger, but adding the salad and apples rounds out the nutrition, providing more fiber and a meal that is lower in sodium than most fast food meals.”


Chipotle’s Salad Bowl

“I’m a fan of their salad bowls,” says Amy Shapiro MS, RD, CDN Real Nutrition NYC. “I recommend asking for greens instead of rice then adding beans, the fajita veggies, one of their delicious proteins, and salsa. Then I recommend picking one: guacamole, sour cream OR cheese. These are all high fat ingredients that can take your meal to the next calorie bracket! I also recommend skipping the chips! I love this meal because it can serve carnivores and vegetarians alike (edit to your dietary preference), it provides lean and flavorful protein, heart-healthy fats, loads of fiber, and veggies. These are ingredients to success!”


Panera’s You Pick Two

“The soup and salad are the perfect pair as part of the ‘You Pick Two’ option,” says Moore. “The vegetarian black bean soup is a comforting way to get hunger smashing protein and fiber. Add to it the Green Goddess Cobb Salad or the Chinese Citrus Cashew Salad or the Fuji Apple Salad for a complete and satisfying lunch or dinner. These combinations help you meet at least half the daily vegetable recommendation easily. That’s important since the large majority of adults miss the recommended daily vegetable mark.”


Starbucks’ Bistro Box

“At Starbucks you can’t go wrong with a Bistro Box! All 7 Bistro Box options are less than 500 calories and are considered a good source of fiber. Each box contains a good balance of healthy carbohydrates, lean proteins, healthy fats, and contain either fruit or vegetables or a combination of both,” Hassick tells us. “For lunch the protein boxes—filled with nuts, fruit, cheese and sometimes boiled eggs—are a fun twist on bento boxes,” adds Moore.


Chick-Fil-A’s Superfood Side

When choosing a side option, Jim White RD, ACSM, HFS, owner of Jim White Fitness and Nutrition Studios, recommends the superfood side. “This is a great alternative for fries. This can be added to any combo to take down the calories tremendously. The superfood side is kale and broccolini which are tossed in a sweet and tangy maple vinaigrette dressing and topped with flavorful dried sour cherries.”


Subway’s Tuna Salad Sub

“My go-to Subway selection is the tuna salad sandwich, partly because I limit my consumption of deli meats,” Michelle Dudash, RDN, chef and author of Clean Eating for Busy Families tells us. I order it on a six-inch nine-grain wheat roll with spinach, green peppers, olives, cucumber and banana peppers, which comes in under 500 calories, with 4 grams fiber, 20 grams protein, and a good source of vitamins A and C, calcium and iron. I also add on avocado, which adds on just 60 calories with good fats. Sometimes I just enjoy the sandwich with water, or if I’m feeling extra hungry I order the combo with a bag of baked barbecue potato chips and a fresh brewed unsweetened iced tea.”


Panera’s Turkey Chili

“It’s way more satisfying than other soups due to the protein in the turkey and protein and fiber in beans. Plus, it’s total comfort food,” Slayton tells us. We agree! Turkey chili also happens to be one of our favorite healthy crock pot recipes.


Wendy’s Mediterranean Chicken Salad

“While I do not typically recommend fast food restaurants, if you are on the go and need something quick, Wendy’s Mediterranean Salad is a great option. This high protein vegetarian salad is packed with 12 grams of protein for only 320 calories. I would always ask for the salad dressing on the side as it holds most of the sodium of this meal, which is above what I would typically recommend in one sitting,” says Kaufman.


Starbucks’ Sous Vide Eggs

“I’m a big fan of their new Sous Vide Eggs!” exclaims Shapiro. “They taste great, are loaded with protein and are under 170 calories but will keep you full for 2-3 hours! They are gluten free so acceptable for celiacs and anyone watching their carbs, contain some veggies (peppers, yay! Therefore some vitamin C).” Slayton adds, “our clients are giving the sousvide eggs major thumb’s up.”


Chick-Fil-A’s Grilled Market Salad

“There’s a Chick-Fil-A on many corners in Atlanta and across the country making it easy to grab one of their salads. The Grilled Market Salad with lean protein, fruit and vegetables can be a healthy lunch or dinner pick. Try it with the Light Balsamic Vinaigrette to keep calories in check,” says Moore.


Chipotle’s Steak and Veggie Soft Tacos

“These tacos have 545 calories, provide nine grams of fiber and have a whopping 41 grams of protein. The meal is also an excellent source of calcium, iron and vitamins C and A. The bad news is, like most quick-serve food, this dish is very high in sodium—but it is lower than many other options on the menu. To make this dish vegetarian-friendly, ask for black beans instead of steak.” says Bannan


Burger King’s Veggie Burger

“I’d probably choose a Morningstar Veggie Burger with ketchup (no mayonnaise), topped with a slice of cheese and a low-fat chocolate milk,” tells Elisa Zied, MS, RDN, CDN, Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and Author of Younger Next Week. “The vegetable patty provides a healthy dose of protein from textured vegetable protein and some fiber to fill me up. The chocolate milk gives me additional protein, calcium (in addition to that from the slice of cheese) and vitamin D, not to mention other essential nutrients like potassium. It also gives me little bit of sweetness I’m looking for after a meal. If I were still hungry or wanted a snack for later, I’d order some apple slices to add extra fiber, crunch and natural sweetness to my day.”


McDonald’s Egg White Delight

Courtesy of McDonald’s

“This is a great breakfast option for those looking for extra protein without the extra calories,” recommends White, since the yolk contains about 70 percent of an egg’s calories for the same amount of protein. This sandwich rings in at just 260 calories and was one of our top-ranked breakfasts when we ranked the entire McDonald’s menu.


Chick Fil A’s Spicy Southwest Salad

“The Spicy Southwest Salad is a great option for those who like a lot of flavor but not a lot of calories. It has about 260 calories without the dressing. There’s also a low calorie dressing option to choose with it called Chili Lime Vinaigrette,” explains White.


Starbucks’ Hearty Veggie Salad Bowl

“Their hearty vegetable salad is GREAT and has saved me many times when I’m in a bind,” Shapiro tells us. “Filled with veggies and beans including squash, greens, beets, tomato and corn on top of brown rice it contains fiber and protein and is fit for vegans and gluten free diets too! Loaded with veggies, you can see all the ingredients and they graciously put the dressing on the side so you can monitor how much you add! This keeps your calories in check without leaving you starving and fills you veggie requirements for the day!”

Get the New Book!

Want to lose 10, 20, even 30 pounds—all without dieting?! Get your copy of Eat This, Not That: The Best (& Worst) Foods in America!, and learn how to indulge smarter and lose weight fast!

Healthy junk food alternatives

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *