Let’s face it, we all crave junk food, especially when we’re stressed or busy. While it can make us feel guilty, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with an occasional treat. But, could there be a way to satisfy your cravings without taking a toll on your health by opting for better-for-you junk food swaps?
It is definitely something to think about. Australia’s national diet score falls well below a healthy average, according to new research from CSIRO. After canvassing the dietary habits of over 235,000 adults between 2015 to 2023, the government agency landed on an average diet score of 55 out of 100. This is barely a pass. At around 28 servings per week, discretionary food (or junk food) was the lowest scoring area across all age and sex groups, earning a 20 out of 100. The biggest contributors were alcohol, cakes and biscuits, chocolate and confectionery, and takeaway.
Additionally, Australia falls short of international best practice when it comes to implementing diet policies. We don’t have adequate restrictions on the marketing, taxing and location of junk food.
“The availability of unhealthy foods has shifted over time, and we live in a world where unhealthy foods are now all around us,” says Advanced Accredited Practising Dietitian, Jemma O’Hanlon.
“Whether it’s our local petrol station, supermarket, train station or closest fast food outlet, unhealthy foods are readily available and often come with a low price tag. We also know that highly processed foods are developed often with palatability in mind, and the more palatable, the better.”
Jemma adds that the “combination of unhealthy fats, sugar and salt” can “trigger happy hormones” which lead to short-term pleasure. “But the long term health impacts can be serious.”
Don’t taken fresh produce for granted
It’s not all bad news for Australia. Our food labelling has been rated among the best in the world – this refers to ingredients lists, nutrition informational panels, and health claims. GST also does not apply to fresh fruit and vegetables, which helps lower their prices.
“In Australia we live in an abundance of fresh produce,” Jemma says. “We are lucky to have growers across the country producing the most nutritious foods including fruit, vegetables, nuts, seeds, legumes and wholegrains.
“We need to make sure these foods are available and accessible, particularly in rural and remote communities, and we need to incentivise these foods and disincentivise unhealthy foods.
“In a world where convenience is often a priority, we need to make it easier for people to eat well, and ensure that kids grow up learning how to cook so they have the skills to prepare healthy meals later in life.”
Healthy junk food alternatives
The more we learn to cook from scratch, the healthier our eating habits will become. By spending time in the kitchen, we can become familiar with ingredients and completely understand what is going into our food.
This will also help us to be more discerning when it comes to purchasing processed foods; while these may satisfy our sugar cravings, they should be eaten in moderation.
Next time you’re tempted to beeline for the confectionery aisle, consider these healthier substitutes first.
Swap potato crisps for unsalted nuts: After something with a crunch? Swap potato crisps for unsalted nuts. These are rich in fibre, protein, vitamins, minerals and healthy fats which are great for heart health.
Swap white bread for wholegrain bread: Wholegrain bread has grains, and often seeds, mixed into wholemeal flour. This has up to four times the fibre of white breads. Wholegrain bread is also low in GI as the seeds take longer to digest.
Swap lollies for dried fruit: If you’re craving sugar, dried fruit is a sweet substitute that can boost your fiber and nutrient intake. They also have plenty of antioxidants.
Swap vanilla ice cream for ricotta: Both vanilla ice cream and ricotta cheese are high in Vitamin A and calcium. But the latter has 69 per cent less carbohydrates and contains more Vitamin B12.
Swap fries for a baked potato: Fries might taste good, but they have limited nutritional value; they are fried in oils and high in sodium and fat. Baked potatoes contain fiber and nutrients like potassium and Vitamin C. And they’re easier to make.
Swap a chocolate bar for a bliss ball: A bliss ball, or protein ball, are packed with energy-boosting, sweet ingredients like dates and nuts, and they have no processed sugar. This makes them the perfect sweet substitute for chocolate.
Swap coconut oil for extra virgin olive oil: Extra virgin olive oil is rich in healthy fats, while coconut oil contains about 80 to 90 per cent of saturated fat; this is bad for cholesterol and heart health.
Swap refined cereal for muesli: While refined cereals are packed with sugars, salts, and fats, museli contains healthier natural components like oats, seeds and dried nuts which can aid digestion and fill you up.
Swap halloumi for bocconcini: This one’s for the cheese lovers. Halloumi, while a favourite, is high in calories, fats and sodiums. Bocconcini provides more nutritional value and is rich in iron, calcium, and Vitamins A and B.
Swap white rice for brown rice: For your next rice dish, swap white for brown. The latter has more fiber, magnesium and other nutrients. White rice is also artifically enriched with nutrients unlike brown rice.
Swap sour cream for Greek yoghurt: Greek yoghurt contains less fat, calories and lactose than sour scream. It also has more protein, potassium and probiotics.
Remember, health is all about a balanced diet. It’s not about erasing junk food from your diet entirely. Moderation is key.
This article takes information from CSIRO, the Public Health Association Australia, and dietitian Jemma O’Hanlon. It doesn’t take into account individual dietary requirements. Always conduct your own research and consult professionals suited to your own needs.