An endless number of studies and experts emphasize that eating a healthy diet is essential for overall health and disease prevention and that consuming too much junk food is a big reason why we often fail to meet this goal. Yet a new study published in Lancet and commented on in the media points out that “at the population level, a low intake of healthy foods is the most important factor, rather than the high intake of unhealthy [junk] foods.”
In other words, the 20 percent of people around the world who die every year don’t succumb because they did not stop eating junk food. The real reason it happens is because they did not eat enough fruit, whole grains, nuts, and seeds, and they consumed too much sodium.
This was no small study. In fact, the Global Burden of Disease study spanned 27 years and gathered data from 195 countries from adults aged 25 years and older. It examined the relationship between dietary habits (specifically, a suboptimal diet) and preventable non-communicable diseases, including type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, and cancers.
What the study said about a healthy diet
The findings of the study are not surprising. Much of the data reported in the study pointed out the many populations where individuals are consuming much more than the recommended amount of red and processed meats, sugary beverages, trans fats, and sodium.
However, the study shifts the focus of dietary recommendations from telling people to stop eating junk food, how to stop eating sugar, and to avoid unhealthy foods to pointing out a few foods we should be including more of in our diets.
For example, a lack of whole grains was the number one diet-related risk factor for deaths and morbidity in the United States and several other countries, including India, Germany, Turkey, and Russia. The problem is that many of the foods being sold as whole grains have actually been processed and stripped of their natural nutrients.
Low intake of nuts and seeds was the number one risk factor in Mexico. This was followed by low consumption of vegetables, whole grains, and fruit. Mexico also ranked very high in use of sugary drinks. Two factors are believed to be behind this habit: a lack of clean drinking water and a cultural preference for homemade sugary beverages.
How to stop eating junk food
Ironically, the way to help people stop eating junk food or to stop eating sugar or too much salt may be to stop emphasizing all of the “don’ts.” Focusing on what not to do is not productive. In fact, telling consumers to avoid unhealthy food is not productive.
Instead, we would likely get better results if we focused on positive food choices. Once we include more of the foods in our diet that were noted in the study, they should automatically take the place of junk food and other unhealthy choices without specifically avoiding them.
Tips on junk food vs healthy food
Choose fruits. Whole (organic when available) fresh fruits are preferred over fruit juices because of their high fiber content. The juicing process also causes most of the water-soluble vitamins to be lost.
If fresh fruit is not available, dried is an alternative. In fact, one piece of dried fruit contains nearly the same amount of nutrients as the fresh version. By weight, however, dried fruit contains approximately 3.5 times the fiber, minerals, and vitamins of fresh fruit.
Choose nuts and seeds. Both of these highly portable, snack-worthy foods are nutrient dense and rich in a variety of vitamins and minerals as well as fiber and protein. When combined with some dried fruit, this natural food combination is a great alternative to junk food.
Choose whole grains. One of the biggest challenges consumers face is choosing real whole grains. According to Andrew Reynolds, a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Otago in New Zealand, who was not involved with the dietary study, we need to be aware that “whole grains are being included in ultraprocessed products that may be finely milled down and have added sodium, added free sugars and added saturated fats.”
These products should not be confused with those that contain “intact, minimally processed whole grains.” If you want to know whether a product contains real whole grains, look for the Whole Grain Stamp. This stamp is provided by the Whole Grains Council and available in 61 countries. The stamp certifies the degree of whole grains in a product.
The bottom line
Perhaps it's time to take a different perspective on junk food and healthy diets. Let's focus on including more fruits, nuts and seeds, and whole grains on our plates while cutting back on sodium rather than worrying so much about how to stop eating junk food. We may live longer!
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GBD 2017 Diet Collaborators. Health effects of dietary risks in 195 countries, 1990-2017: a systematic analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study 2017. Lancet 2019 Apr 3
LaMotte S. What we aren’t eating is killing us, global study finds. CNN Health 2019 Apr 3