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Popular for a quick pick-me-up or a hug-like dose of comfort, junk food is unfortunately a go-to for many of us. However, just a few simple tweaks could give you a similar taste, texture and flavour of your favourite treats - minus the empty calories.
Diving into a doughnut or sneaking in a greasy burger can be a party for your tastebuds, but not great for your waistline. The good news is by working out what’s fuelling your desire for a diet-busting snack or meal, you can choose a healthier option that’ll meet your needs without the unnecessary calories.
Junk food cravings can be triggered by anything from wanting a quick boost of energy to a development of bad habits over time. For example, if you eat a choccie bar at 3pm for a few days in a row, your pleasure-seeking brain will soon set off a silent alarm that time each day, according to clinical nutritionist Victoria Malouf. Food is also a way for us to connect to happy memories and gain comfort, says director of The Dietologist Stefanie Valakas, accredited practising dietitian and nutritionist.
Sleep deprivation can also trigger a snack attack. “Ghrelin is the hunger hormone produced in your stomach, regulating your appetite and telling you when you should eat. This can spike when you’re lacking sleep,” says nutritionist and naturopath, Jess Blair.
Polycystic ovary syndrome, a hormonal disorder affecting nearly 20% of Australian women may kick off sugar cravings due to variations in blood sugar levels across the day, Valakas adds. This can be tricky to diagnose, so it’s best to talk to your GP if you have concerns.
These oat and cinnamon breakfast cookies are full of slow-releasing carbohydrates, healthy fats and fibre, and a range of nuts and seeds. If this particular combination of ingredients doesn’t work for you, the internet is alive with healthy biscuit, cake and sweet slice recipes to choose from (check out this tasty coconut and choc blender brownie recipe or these choc-coffee energy balls.) Look for recipes low on sugars and packed with plenty of whole grains and healthy nuts, seeds or veggies.
Chocolate cravings can sometimes be triggered by a magnesium deficiency, explains Malouf. “Magnesium plays a major role in glucose and fat metabolism, and the production of energy needed to help enzymes within the body function. It is also vital for recovery after training sessions, helping muscles replenish and repair,” she says.
Instead of reaching for a choccie bar, Valakas recommends keeping a simple trail mix at your desk – some unsalted nuts and seeds, with a few dark chocolate chips mixed through for some long-lasting energy will tick the sweet, crunchy and savoury boxes.
These little air-fried ‘kernels’ (pun intended) of delicious paprika and garlic-spiced cauliflower make a great snack or side with your dinner.
Other alternatives to salty packaged snacks?
“Some healthier alternatives include lightly salted air popped popcorn, rice cakes with peanut butter or homemade sweet potato chips,” Malouf says. Or try these delicious roasted chickpeas.
Use lean mince to make your own burger patties, then add cheese and salad to a wholegrain roll for a nutritious and balanced meal without the extra fats.
For homemade pizza, Valakas recommends topping your base (it can be homemade or you can use pita bread) with some plain tomato passata, veggies, a protein of choice and cheese. Air fry some sweet potato fries if you're craving hot chips.
Boost the health benefits of a creamy curry by adding a can of chopped tomatoes, or switch out regular cream for a lite coconut cream or milk (this trick also works when you’re prepping a carbonara or béchamel sauce).
Chili con carne is incredibly healthy if made with a lean protein (you could even give vegan mince a whirl), refried, kidney or black beans, tinned tomatoes and a Mexican spice blend. Swap out sour cream for plain yoghurt and grate as many veggies as you like through. Wholemeal wraps make for a healthier burrito, or try this recipe for healthy mushroom and avocado tacos that come in at just $4 per serve.
If you’re craving a specific junk food, take a moment to consider why this could be. Sometimes it’s more about the mouthfeel than a specific flavour – for example, crunchy or soft and doughy. There is always a healthier option that will deliver without overloading your daily intake of calories, unsaturated fats, sugars and sodium.
For more nutritious recipes, check out our healthy recipe tab on The Check Up.