If you’re the sort of person who spends time scouring the internet for guidance on what you should and shouldn’t eat, then you might have noticed that nutritionists never seem to tire of telling us what not to eat. Say no to junk food, for one. But surely there’s a better, more fun way to live? A lifestyle that allows us to indulge in the things we enjoy in moderation, without damaging our health?
Why is junk food so delicious?
Considering the evolution of the human diet, you might have wondered why we would have adapted to find fatty and sugary foods so delicious. The answer lies in a modern abundance of once-scarce resources. Certain nutrients such as salts, fats and sugars were once incredibly scarce but extremely valuable to hunter-gatherers. Any animal with a taste for these things would gorge themselves at every opportunity. Thus providing itself with enough nutrients to survive during leaner times. If you’ve watched a David Attenborough documentary in which a family of ravenous lions devour an entire wildebeest in a single sitting, you’ll have seen this gluttony in action.
Of course, the world we inhabit today is quite different to the one our tastes evolved in. Our streets are dotted with fast food outlets and our supermarket shelves are stacked high with “convenience” foods. Few of us have to contend with “lean periods”, besides the ones we impose on ourselves.
What qualifies as junk food?
The OED defines junk food as “pre-prepared or packaged food that has low nutritional value”. This includes everything from a fast food burger to the bulk of microwave ready meals. But there’s a problem with this definition. For one thing, it leads to circular logic: “Why is junk food bad for you? Because foods that are bad for you are junk foods.” The result is a lack of understanding about exactly why certain foods are bad, and what effect they have.
Many of the foods we describe as “low nutritional value” are actually packed with nutrients. A Big Mac, for example, provides 26g of protein, 3g of fibre, 27% of your RDA of calcium, 35% of your RDA of iron, and 31% of your RDA of Vitamin B12. While this is hardly the best place to find these things, it’s unfair to say that this burger is bereft of nutrition.
The same qualities can be ascribed to a chow mein, high-quality kebab, tikka shashlik or fish ‘n’ chips – they’re not ideal, and they should be indulged in infrequently. But we should be far more cautious about indulging in foods like pre-packaged chocolate bars, cakes and many crisps. These junk foods really are of “low nutritional value”. However, even these can be worked into a “healthy” diet – as occasional treats, rather than daily rituals.
How can I eat junk food the healthy way?
Cooking is a skill that anyone who aspires to eat well should master, since you’ll be able to determine precisely what goes into your meals, and leave some of the more troublesome ingredients off the menu (or at least control their quantities).
Microwave meals are a good example. Through necessity, they contain large amounts of salt. This helps to extend the shelf-life of the product, and improve palatability. If you’re making food at home, you don’t need to worry about shelf life – you’re going to be eating it straight away. Therefore, you won’t need to pour much salt into your next jalfrezi. Home cooking needn’t mean sacrificing on convenience, either. You can make burger patties en-masse and freeze them for months on end, and you won’t even need to sacrifice on taste.
So, how much junk food should I eat?
Occasionally treating yourself isn’t a bad thing. If you set strict goals that ban you from consuming things you enjoy, you’re setting yourself up to fail. Occasional feats of excess aren’t going to stand between you and a healthy lifestyle – it’s the cumulative effect of constant poor dietary choices that are far more worrisome. By the same token, life is far too short to feel guilty about eating a slice of birthday cake at a party, or a big plateful of cheesy pasta at a celebratory dinner. Life is to be enjoyed, so allow yourself a treat, and don’t feel guilty about it – just ensure you’re eating a sensible, balanced diet overall, and you’ll do just fine.
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