Here on ThreeApplesADay, I often recommend cutting out processed foods and adding more whole foods to your diet as much as possible: munch on veggie sticks instead of chips for the same crunch or sip green tea instead of soda for the same energy boost. Other websites, magazines, and nutrition experts offer the same advice with quick fix headlines: Cut out 100, 200, even 500 calories a day! But unfortunately, it’s not so simple or easy.
According to Dr. David Kessler, the combination of fat, salt, and sugar that is so prevalent in packaged and processed foods alters our brain chemistry in a way that makes us crave these foods more. “The salt-fat-sugar combination will stimulate the diner’s brain to crave more…and the food industry manipulates this neurological response, designing foods to induce people to eat more than they should or even want,” says Kessler. In fact, according to a study published by the National Academy of Sciences, going cold turkey on sweets and high-fat food results in the same withdrawal symptoms that junkies go through. In the study, rats who were accustomed to a diet rich in sugar and chocolate and then had those treats taken away showed five times the normal levels of corticotropin-releasing factor, the same stress factor that is released when drug addicts try to quit.
So what is a sugar-fat-salt addict to do? It’s all about the baby steps: instead of quitting your favorite packaged and processed foods immediately, swap them out for healthier and healthier versions until you reach healthy, nutritious, clean foods. Spend about three weeks at each step; obesity researchers from New York Presbyterian Hospital determined that 21 days is the minimum time required to properly form a habit and stick with it.
Unhealthy: Potato chips
Potato chips are a dangerous snack food: their small serving size (one ounce, about 12 chips) and high calorie, sodium and saturated fat counts makes it easy to go overboard. But potato chips also contain acrylamide, a carcinogenic byproduct formed when foods are heated to high temperatures.
Healthier: Flax or bean chips
Chips made with wholesome ingredients, like Beanitos Black Bean Chips, are still processed — but they provide far more nutrients than potato chips. Beanitos Black Bean Chips, for example, offer 4 grams of protein and 5 grams of filling fiber per 1 ounce serving — making them satisfying enough to stop at one serving.
Healthier: Kale chips
It would be difficult to overindulge in kale chips: one cup has just 34 calories. Plus, it boasts considerable amounts of vitamin A, C and K, as well as lutein and zeaxanthin, two carotenoids that boost eye health. If you want a vehicle for your favorite dips, pick carrot chips — all the flavor is in the dips, anyway!
Unhealthy: Sugary cereal
According to the Environmental Working Group, 56 popular cereals contain more than 25% sugar by weight. These cereals are also refined and stripped of their nutrients, including satiating fiber, so you start your day off with uneven blood sugar levels, low energy, and a poor mood.
Healthier: Half sugary cereal and half whole grain cereal
By cutting your portion of sugary cereal in half and adding in half a serving of whole grains, you cut out half the sugar and add in satiating belly-filling fiber. Look for cereals that list a whole grain as its first ingredients, at least five grams of fiber, and fewer than 7 grams of sugar.
Healthier still: Instant oatmeal
Oatmeal is rated as one of the top satiating foods — it’s filled with fiber and a surprising amount of protein. It’s also praised as a weight-loss food: researchers from the University of California at Berkeley found that people who ate cooked cereal for breakfast had a lower BMI than any other breakfast-eating group. Instant oatmeal is an easy transition from sugary cereals, as it’s often sweetened and comes in tasty flavors like Maple Nut and Chai-Spiced.
Healthiest: Steel cut oats
Steel cut oats are the least processed type of oatmeal (as opposed to instant oatmeals, which are chopped, flattened, pre-cooked, dehydrated, and flavored with sugar and salt). With plenty of protein and fiber, steel cut oats are lower on the glycemic index than other oatmeals — so you’ll get through your morning with plenty of energy. Plus, they contain all B vitamins, calcium, magnesium, and antioxidants.
Unhealthy: French fries
An average order of French fries adds about 430 calories to your meal; that’s a lot of calories, considering they’re just a side. But calories alone don’t make French fries unhealthy. In supersizes, their excessive amount of starch is quickly converted to sugar, which causes a spike in insulin production and ultimately increases your risk for metabolic syndrome and diabetes. Plus, fries contain the same dangerous carcinogen (acrylamide) as potato chips, as well as saturated and trans fats.
Healthier: Sweet potato fries
Sweet potato fries offer up just as many calories and unhealthy fat grams (and the aforementioned acrylamide) as regular French fries. But they have some redeeming qualities: they have a lower glycemic index, making them a better choice for maintaining steady blood sugar levels and satiety. Plus, they’re high in vitamin A and fiber.
Healthier still: Baked sweet potato fries
Without sacrificing flavor, the difference between restaurant sweet potato fries and homemade baked sweet potato fries is huge — 270 calories and 15 grams of fat. Those calories come from saturated and trans fats, leaving you with the nutrient-dense calories of a sweet potato.
Healthiest: Baked butternut squash fries
Sweet potatoes are a root vegetable, whereas butternut squash is technically a fruit. Although their tastes are similar — and they both contain high amounts of skin-boosting carotenoids — sweet potato contains more than twice as many calories, carbs, and sugars as butternut squash. One cup of butternut squash packs just 63 calories, 16.4 grams of carbs, and 3.1 grams of sugars; it’s also rich in calcium, magnesium, potassium, and vitamin E. With fiber and high water content, butternut squash is also filling — much more so than 430 calories of French fries!
Healthier: Natural sodas
Healthier still: Sweetened tea
Healthiest: Green tea
Unhealthy: Kraft Macaroni and Cheese
Healthier: Annie’s Shells & Creamy White Cheddar
Healthiest: Butternut Squash Macaroni and Cheese