Junk food is a go-to source of comfort for many Americans, particularly during a pandemic. If you're a carnivore, it's tough to overstate the allure of a juicy hamburger. Love carbs? Salty fries may be your staple indulgence.
"No matter which type of junk food you crave, there are ways to get your fix without compromising your health and diet," says Kimberly Snodgrass, RDN, a registered dietitian nutritionist at Henry Ford Health.
Redefining Junk Food
Eating junk food can quickly evolve into an addiction. The reason: Junk food releases a flood of feel-good hormones into the pleasure center of the brain, including dopamine — the so-called "happy hormone."
"Dopamine spikes when we experience something enjoyable. Junk food often falls into that category," Snodgrass says. "When we get that hit of dopamine, it sends a signal to the brain to eat more unhealthy foods; that’s what causes weight gain."
The upshot: You can transform junk foods into healthy meals. Here's the skinny side of six favorite food fixes:
- Pizza: Many Americans like their pizza loaded with meat like sausage, pepperoni and salami. Others ask for extra cheese. Unfortunately, those prized ingredients are often what make your pizza unhealthy. To clean things up, opt for veggie pizza — mushrooms, bell peppers, spinach, even artichoke hearts — and go light on the cheese.
(Check out ideas for healthy homemade pizza.)
- Burgers: While traditional burgers are made of ground beef, today's burgers are made of everything from turkey and salmon to shrimp and veggies. Get creative with the protein — and load up your burger with veggies. "Skip the cheese and mayo, and opt instead for toppings like lettuce, tomato, onions and jalapenos," Snodgrass suggests. "Fruits and vegetables not only add color to your plate and make it look pretty, but they also add flavor and fiber."
(Get the recipes for two of our favorite veggie burgers - Sweet Potato & Black Bean Burgers and Black Bean Quinoa Burgers.)
- French fries: Homemade fries are easy to make, and in many cases, they taste better than the fast-food variety. Just cut up a whole potato (leave the skin on for extra fiber). Then pop the fries in the oven (at 450 or 475 degrees Fahrenheit) or into the air fryer until they turn golden. Still crave fast-food fries? "Ask for the kid-size fry with no added salt. Then pair it with apple slices or carrot sticks," Snodgrass suggests.
- Pasta: The best way to lighten up noodle dishes is to swap white pasta for whole wheat. If that's too tough to swallow, try making dishes with half whole wheat pasta and half white. Better yet, try zoodles (zucchini noodles) or spaghetti squash. Then add a protein source like shrimp or chicken, and top it all with veggies. Broccoli, spinach and mushrooms are all nutrient-rich options.
(These recipes can help you get started: Chicken Parmesan with Zucchini Noodles, One-Pot Turkey, Cheese and Pasta Bake, Shrimp & Chicken Caulifredo Pasta and Spring Veggie Pasta Salad.)
- Tacos: There's no rule that says you must make tacos with ground beef. "I use ground turkey instead; it has less fat," Snodgrass says. Black beans are another option, and they also boast fiber. Swap full-fat sour cream with nonfat plain Greek yogurt and you'll make ground turkey tacos even skinnier. Better yet, consider avocado or homemade guacamole. In addition to fiber, you'll get a dose of heart-healthy monounsaturated fat.
(Make tacos like these yummy Cauliflower Black Bean Tacos and Fish Tacos With Avocado-Cilantro Sauce.)
- Soda: The truth is, beverages can add significant weight to your calorie quota. Your best bet: Sip sparkling water instead. You'll get the flavor and the bubbles, but without the calories, artificial ingredients and sweeteners.
Junk Food Fixes
The idea behind every junk food fix is to get away from foods that are high in calories, saturated or trans-fat and salt and sodium, and lean toward foods that boast fiber, antioxidants and healthy fats. That way, you get the health advantages of better eating without compromising flavor.
Not loving your first attempts at junk food makeovers? Give it time. You need to retrain your tastebuds to crave food that's less salty and sweet — and that can take up to three weeks.
In the meantime, if you're really craving a favorite food, allow yourself a small indulgence. "Just be mindful of portion sizes," Snodgrass cautions. "Get snack-sized or kid-sized packages of your favorite junk food. Then, if you're still hungry, choose a healthy complement, such as apples, carrots, cucumbers or celery."
Kimberly Snodgrass, RDN, specializes in nutrition counseling and health coaching for the Henry Ford Center for Health Promotion.