5 Unhealthiest Junk Foods and Some Healthy Alternatives

by Marcia Mangum Cronin


I received a press release recently sharing the five worst junk foods/fast foods, as picked by Kimberly Snyder, celebrity nutritionist and author of The Beauty Detox Solution. It's hard to argue with her top five: fried chicken, deep-fried cheese sticks, fish and chips, pepperoni pizza and nachos. However, I do take issue with her "great alternatives." To me, they sound like a recipe for failure.

For her No. 1 worst choice, she offers no alternatives and merely advises that we never, ever eat fried chicken. 

Well, I'm no nutritionist, but I have edited a lot of nutrition information during my lengthy editing career, and I'm a middle-age woman who maintains a healthy weight, exercises regularly and gets good checkup reports. As a staff member of HealthyWomen, I believe it's important to suggest positive options for a healthy lifestyle and to support women in their efforts to live healthy lives.

I recently attended a lecture by a nutritionist who echoed this philosophy. She emphasized that foods aren't really "good" or "bad" or "healthy" or "unhealthy." Certainly, prepackaged foods, fast foods and fried foods aren't the best choices, but this nutritionist cast her advice in a more encouraging way. She stressed the importance of moderate portions and eating a variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and low-fat dairy and lean proteins every day. Most successful, balanced weight-loss programs teach a similar approach, encouraging people to eat the foods they love, but to make smart choices and not overdo it.

Banning foods nearly always backfires for me. It's easy to give up certain foods for a while, but if I truly love chocolate or pizza or fried chicken (as I do), I'm probably going to eat them at some point. If I make up my mind to eat them only occasionally and/or in very small portions, I do not feel deprived and, consequently, don't binge.

I eat fried chicken about twice a year—usually at a picnic or some other occasion where it's being served. I don't overdo it and am delighted to savor just one piece. More routinely, I enjoy chicken that is broiled, grilled, roasted or quickly sautéed in a pan. It is not usually breaded and is more likely to have a dry rub or be lightly sauced with a lemon-caper or tomato-based sauce.

I also treat myself to chocolate semi-regularly, but I carefully watch my portions and favor the healthier dark chocolate (loaded with flavonoids, which act as antioxidants) over the more sugary milk chocolate. I am supremely satisfied to have 1 ounce of rich dark chocolate after dinner—even better when it's one of the specialty chocolates flavored with marsala, green tea or other exotic tastes that my husband occasionally brings home from his travels.

If you're wondering what Snyder recommends as alternatives to her top five unhealthy foods, here's her list, followed by my suggestions in parentheses:

1. Fried chicken: No alternative; just avoid it. (I say: If you really love it, eat small portions a few times a year, but try healthier ways to cook chicken on a regular basis. Some oven-fried chicken recipes may satisfy your fried chicken craving with less fat—but watch out for butter in the recipes.)

2. Deep-fried cheese sticks: Eat veggie sticks with hummus instead. (I like veggie sticks and hummus, but another alternative is low-fat mozzarella sticks, which provide a healthy serving of calcium and protein. If you're really craving a fried appetizer, consider tempura-fried veggies, which at least avoid the double-dose of fat found in fried cheese.)

3. Fish and chips: Opt for a salad instead. (I'm sorry—a salad is no substitute for fish and chips in my book. Consider a healthier seafood option, like steamed mussels or grilled or broiled fish. Potatoes and fish can both be part of a healthy diet—just try to avoid frying most of the time. A tilapia fillet with lemon sauce, half a baked sweet potato and a green veggie make a wonderful meal, as does salmon with a light yogurt dill sauce, some roasted herbed potatoes and more green veggies.)

4. Pepperoni pizza: Try brown rice or quinoa pasta with tomato sauce instead. (I love brown rice and quinoa, and I'm learning to eat them in many exciting fun ways. But, I also love my pizza, and I'm not giving it up entirely. I have made some healthy compromises. I make sure to have fruit or salad with my pizza, so I don't eat but a slice or two. And sometimes I make my own pizza using a store-bought whole-wheat crust topped with a hearty mix of veggies and a sprinkling of good cheeses. Parmesan packs a punch in small amounts, and mozzarella still tastes yummy if you use the low-fat version. )

5. Nachos: Substitute veggie sticks dipped in salsa. (Nachos are another weakness of mine, and I still eat them occasionally—just include some healthy toppings like salsa, guacamole and black beans, watch the portions and try to eat healthily the rest of the day. I also satisfy my Mexican food cravings by eating salsa with everything from eggs to red pepper strips. Sometimes I make a quesadilla with a whole-wheat tortilla, low-fat cheese, lean chicken or black beans and plenty of salsa and/or guacamole. I cook the quesadillas in a nonstick pan to avoid added fat.)

Each of us must find what works for us personally, but, for me, it's a combination of making some simple substitutions to reduce saturated fats and calories, controlling portions, exercising—and enjoying the foods I love.

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