Are Treats & Junk Food Part of a Healthy Diet?
Do we believe what we are told by numerous dietitians, fitness gurus and the food industry, that treats and junk food can be part of a healthy diet?
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines treat as “an act of providing another with free food, drink or entertainment” or “an especially unexpected source of joy, delight or amusement.”1
How did treat get to mean a sugary snack in between meals as pacifier, reward, or motivation? Something that we are entitled to at least once daily and if this is not supplied, we are on a diet, craving and resentful? When we inevitably give in to a so-called guilty pleasure, do we actually enjoy it? Is it really a pleasure if there is guilt?
When junk food was withheld for a mere four weeks, traffic control was needed to control the ensuing chaos when access was again granted.
The food industry would have us believe that treats and junk food can be healthy as part of a balanced diet and exercise lifestyle. There are so many problems with the statement, starting with:
- What is a balanced diet?
- How often can one consume junk food or treats as part of a healthy diet?
- How much exercise is needed?
- When is a food junk food and when is it a non-junk food?
The cynic may be forgiven for thinking this level of confusion is deliberate. I hear the cries of anguished rebuttal: It’s made from real fruit; it’s just a little homemade treat, I get hangry if I don’t eat every 2 hours, I deserve this. How did it come to this?
Humans are the only species on the planet who actually go out of their way to feed their children crap.
The evolutionary, emotional, and gut-brain-gut axes that contribute to our desire for solace and reward in food are beyond the scope of this blog. However, humans are the only species on the planet who actually go out of their way to feed their children crap. All other animals naturally seek out the best nutrition they can find.2
Recently, Twitter exploded when Krispy Kreme donated a large consignment of donuts to hospital staff in Britain. Dr. Aseem Malhotra’s rage was almost tangible, as was the derision of some of his colleagues mocking him by posting photos of themselves eating enormous donuts. A harmless treat to hard working staff who are at the forefront of the COVID-19 pandemic?
Junk Food in Hospitals
There is no scarcity of junk food in hospitals. In the Australian EDs and hospitals I have worked in, junk food is everywhere. When tired, stressed and working shifts this helps you get through – just this time.
Furthermore, 25% of nurses and 14% of other healthcare professionals in England are obese.3 Not only does obesity and poor metabolic health increase the risk of severe illness if COVID-19 is contracted 4 but just having high blood sugar for a short time can alter the immune response to infection.5 Donuts are not helpful in hospitals. Ever.
Misconceptions and half-truths that are espoused by health authorities and food industries keep nudging us to incorporate treats and junk foods into our lifestyles. If our health or waistlines don’t respond, we are seen to have somehow failed. Maybe in not exercising enough, or by eating three cookies instead of two. These are the top three misconceptions I see.
- All calories are equal. We all know that 100 calories of broccoli is not the same thing as 100 calories of sugar. We know this in our gut. For a good summation, I suggest reading Death of the Calorie by Peter Wilson.
- Balance food intake with exercise. The Coke is ok if you burn X calories. However, it is now generally accepted that “you cannot out run a bad diet”. 6
- Stick to the 80/20 rule. This implies that if you eat well 80% of the time, you can eat badly 20% of the time. I have never seen this work in practice. It appears we are by evolution designed to eat ever more sugar once we start.7
Satiety – Stopping the Cravings
How do we stop the constant drive for ever more food and sugar?
Satiety is the feeling of fullness. The satisfactory completion of a good meal, generally with an associated “aaahhhhh.” How do we get satiated? It’s the food, of course. Think about feeling how a roast dinner with all the trimmings makes you feel versus a fruit smoothie?
Protein is probably the most satisfying macro-nutrient, followed by fat and lastly carbohydrates. Fibre also significantly improves satiety.8 This is important as the brain will keep you hungry until you are not. It has, in fact, been hypothesized that the body will keep you hungry, searching for food until sufficient protein (or the amino acids that make up protein) has been consumed.9,10 But autophagy you cry, it’s inhibited by protein. Indeed, which is where eating one or two meals per day or undertaking fasting comes into play. Everything needs to be in balance. Times of fasting and repair interspersed with times of building up.
The brain will keep you hungry until you are not.
Start by eating real food. Real food is vegetables, meat, eggs, fish, minimally processed dairy, nuts, seeds, and occasional old-fashioned fruits (sour citrus and crabapples etc). Grains and legumes are a moot point, but probably best avoided by most.
All cereals, muesli bars and prepared foods, even the keto and high protein ones are processed foods. Definitely do not go near the chippie, fruit drink, soda or lollie isles. Consider how hard it is to get sugar from sugar-cane. Sugar, including brown sugar and coconut sugar, is a highly processed food. Sugar and junk food are highly addictive.11 While not suggesting that food cravings are easy to overcome, the more real food you eat, the less likely you are to want to eat junk food.
How to Eat
Eat two to three, ideally shared, meals per day and do not eat in between meals. These meals should consist of protein, vegetables and some fat such as nuts, olives, avocado etc. If you are not full, eat more.
If you are hungry between meals, remember, no one ever died of hunger (vs starvation). Hunger passes. It is one of the normal sensations of the body. Enjoy it and delay squashing it with the nearest snack.
So, do treats and junk food form part of a healthy diet? Maybe in the true meaning of the word. Does that hamburger that you stuff into your mouth while driving out of the drive-through provide joy? Or does it only provide a modicum of relief that fades until you are again driven to find the next fix?
Let’s take treats and junk food back from the food industry. Treats are never guilty pleasures. As soon as guilt is present, delight goes out the window. An act of eating that provides an especially unexpected joy or delight can only do so if that act is not routine. Let’s have treats as they were meant to be: unexpected, joyful and delightful, something to be cherished. Celebrating an occasion by sharing cake with loved ones is part of a healthy diet.
- Merriam-Webster.(n.d.). Treat. Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary. Retrieved May 7, 2020, from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/treat (2020).
- Wilson, G. Family support strategies in children’s health. in ACNEM STP: Children’s Health (2012).
- Kyle, R.G., et al. Obesity prevalence among healthcare professionals in England: a cross-sectional study using the Health Survey for England. BMJ open 7, e018498 (2017).
- Stefan, N., Birkenfeld, A.L., Schulze, M.B. & Ludwig, D.S. Obesity and impaired metabolic health in patients with COVID-19. Nature Reviews Endocrinology (2020).
- Jafar, N., Edriss, H. & Nugent, K. The Effect of Short-Term Hyperglycemia on the Innate Immune System. The American Journal of the Medical Sciences 351, 201-211 (2016).
- Malhotra, A., Noakes, T. & Phinney, S. It is time to bust the myth of physical inactivity and obesity: you cannot outrun a bad diet. British Journal of Sports Medicine 49, 967 (2015).
- Tan, H.E., et al. The gut-brain axis mediates sugar preference. Nature 580, 511-516 (2020).
- Tremblay, A. & Bellisle, F. Nutrients, satiety, and control of energy intake. Appl Physiol Nutr Metab 40, 971-979 (2015).
- Simpson, S.J. & Raubenheimer, D. Obesity: the protein leverage hypothesis. Obes Rev 6, 133-142 (2005).
- Saner, C., et al. Evidence for Protein Leverage in Children and Adolescents with Obesity. Obesity (Silver Spring) 28, 822-829 (2020).
- Malhotra, A., Schofield G, Lustig RH. The science against sugar, alone is insufficient in tacking the obesity and type 2 diabetes crises – We must also overcome opposition from vested interests. J. insul. resist 3(2018).