As a nation, we love junk food. But if you’ve decided it’s time to break the habit, we’re here to help! Karen Fittall shows you how to make the change.
Greasy hamburgers, fried chicken, chips and that old favourite, cheesy pizza. However you look at it, the junk food options that are available to us are endless. And even in the face of an economic crisis, we’re still tucking in.
While the Dietitians Association of Australia says the average Australian spends at least 15 per cent of their food budget on takeaways, according to market researcher BIS Shrapnel, the figure is much higher. Its recent report shows that for every dollar spent on food and non-alcoholic drink in Australia, 44 cents is splashed on fast food. That’s an awful lot of hamburgers!
The big question is, if you sound like a statistic, how can you change your ways? How can you quit relying on a burger for lunch in favour of a more nutritious alternative? The answer may be as easy as one, two, three.
1. Admit you’ve got a habit
This might be easier once you understand that as far as some experts are concerned, junk food can actually be addictive.
A study by the University of South Australia showed that not only did rats that were allowed to eat nothing but foods rich in sugar and fat put on weight over a two-month period, they actually became anxious when the food was replaced with a healthier option.
Accredited Practising Dietitian Emma Stirling says that taking stock of your family’s junk food consumption can be a good place to start when it comes to ‘diagnosing’ a potential habit. “You may not even realise that your family is stuck in a junk food rut until you make the effort to do your own mini audit,” she suggests. “Jot down the number of nights you dine out, visit a drive-through or pick up junk food during a two-week period. When you see it on paper, you may be surprised at just how much junk food you are actually consuming.”
2. Start to break the habit
To do this, work out when and where your junk food addiction typically rears its head. As a starting point, research by the University of Adelaide found that 17 per cent of regular fast-food eaters consume takeaways while shopping or buying groceries, while 29 per cent buy takeaway food while commuting. And the most common reason for buying it? Nearly 34 per cent of people said it was because they were in a hurry and/or didn’t have time to cook. “This is also where keeping a food diary can help,” says Stirling. “If you write down when and in which situations you buy a takeaway, you’ll soon start seeing patterns – it might be that you’re more likely to swing through a drive-through after a long day at work, or if you haven’t had time for breakfast at home in the morning, or even on the weekends when you are out with the kids.” By identifying your ‘danger spots’, you’re more likely to be able to start making some different choices.
3. Make some new habits
Rather than Wednesday evening being fish and chips night, or Saturday lunch being spent at the local burger joint week in, week out, Emma Stirling recommends crafting some new habits based around healthier foods and meals.
“Make one night during the week or weekend a regular ‘homemade pizza night’, where you grab pita breads for pizza bases and create your own healthy toppings. Or commit to learning how to cook a new recipe that you have chosen from a cookbook one night a week.
“And on the weekends, plan for a picnic with some pre-prepared salads and a barbecued chicken. Eat in a location where the kids can still make the most of a playground, without having to visit a fast-food store.”
Stirling also recommends against going completely ‘cold turkey’. Instead, try to limit takeaway foods to just one meal a week. “And the way to do that is to plan ahead – it means you can look forward to an enjoyable weekly takeaway and stick to this on a set night, so you’re not tempted to slip more in during the week.”
Stirling’s tips for planning ahead? A quick, weekly shop to stock up. “This can be quicker than a drive-through on a busy night, and means you’re prepared for the week ahead. When you get home, I’d argue that you can have a healthy meal made from a handful of ingredients ready in just 15 minutes – these days, there are so many pre-packed salads or fresh fish fillets that are already marinated, so all you have to do is throw them on the barbecue.”
Turning healthy food into fast food
To avoid the temptation of a takeaway after a long day at work, buy yourself a slow cooker that you can set up in the morning so that by the time you get home at night, a delicious meal is already prepared – all you need do is serve and eat.
Once every couple of weeks, cook up a few large batches of stews, soups and even bolognaise sauce. Divide into single-serve portions and freeze until you need them – just remember to take one out to defrost before you leave for work.
For breakfasts on the run, stock your pantry with some ready-to-go options, such as low-fat breakfast drinks and bars, or put a couple of handfuls of nuts (such as almonds) mixed with some dry cereal into a zip-up plastic bag that you can nibble from, paired with a piece of transportable fruit, such as a banana. Hard-boiled eggs also make a great ‘travelling’ breakfast.
If you usually buy something on the way to work to eat for breakfast or lunch, try storing a few essentials at work instead. A serve of wholegrain cereal or two pieces of wholegrain toast spread with peanut butter is ideal for a late brekkie at your desk, while there are plenty of great options to keep handy in your desk drawer. See below for more ideas and suggestions.
Marinate meats such as lamb or chicken or fish before you leave for work in the morning – not only will it cut down on the time it takes to cook dinner, but knowing it’s waiting for you in the fridge should be enough to stop you from grabbing takeaway on your way home.
No-one’s saying that takeaways have to be a ‘no-go zone’. You just have to learn how to pick and choose what you spend your money (and your kilojoules) on.
Take advantage of the helpful nutrition information panels that many fast-food outlets now display. “Fast-food chains have woken up to the growing consumer demand for healthier options,” says Emma Stirling. “The key is to go as low as you can in saturated fat, salt and kilojoules, while still enjoying a satisfying serve size.”
Use ‘guides’ such as the Heart Foundation Tick to help you make a healthier choice. While the tick doesn’t mean the food in question is a ‘health food’, it does mean that, compared to other foods on the menu, the one with the tick will be the healthier option.
Don’t be tempted to ‘upsize’. A study by researchers at Melbourne’s Deakin University found that, on average, upsizing a fast food meal meant paying just 12 per cent more, but it upped the kilojoule intake by 23 per cent, fat intake by 25 per cent and sugar by a massive 38 per cent. “Instead go for a small size and add a garden salad to fill you up, choose water or a diet soft drink and skip dessert,” Stirling suggests.
Remember that grilled items are generally healthier than fried ones, and choosing skin-free chicken or simply removing the skin can drastically reduce a meal’s fat content.
Don’t be afraid to ask for your burger to be made with sauce on the side, or no sauce at all – you will find that even fast-food outlets are typically happy to accommodate special requests.
We asked dietitian Milena Katz for her top picks to stash in your desk drawer so you can avoid unhealthy work lunches.
Heinz Salt-Reduced Baked Beans.
Salmon, tuna or sardines in spring water – “look for one with omega-3 listed on the label, otherwise the content may not be as high”.
Corn kernels or corn spears – “mix the tuna, baked beans and corn, then microwave for 40 seconds. It’s a high-protein, low-GI meal for a couple of dollars!”
Campbell’s Velish or Heinz canned soups.
Vacuum-sealed pasta meals with napoletana sauce – “just add some tuna”.
Goulburn Valley Two Fruits – “in juice, rather than syrup”.
Arnott’s Vita-Weat 9 Grains Crispbread.
Packs of air-popped popcorn.
SunRice Brown Rice in 90 Seconds – “great with any protein and vegies.”
And if you’ve got a fridge…
Turkey or roast beef slices.
Cottage cheese or low-fat ricotta.
Philadelphia Extra Light Spreadable Cream Cheese.
Frozen meals – “try Healthy Choice or Lean Cuisine, and add some steam-fresh vegies.”
Yoghurt – Vaalia or Jalna – “buy early in the month, as they have a four-week shelf life”.
Boiled eggs – “or poach in the microwave”.
So, what is junk food anyway?
We actually don’t like the phrase ‘junk food’, as most foods can be enjoyed in moderation, but it’s a useful term that everyone understands when talking about certain foods with little nutritional value.
This group typically encompasses processed, packaged and convenient foods, which are high in saturated fat, sodium and sugar, as well as foods (and some drinks) from takeaway and fast-food outlets, drive-throughs or chain stores.
Indeed, fast food is often high in fat, and any one such food or meal may even contain more than half your daily fat allowance and nearly all of your saturated fat allowance.