The overconsumption of high-energy, low-nutrient ‘food-like’ products is at the centre of the global obesity crisis. Most junk foods come disguised in brightly coloured packaging emblazoned with mascots and health claims that trigger a dopamine response in the brain. This can cause people to indulge and often over-consume processed foods. Promises of an instant sugar fix are somehow more appealing than a simple fruit, nature’s candy. However, the season of Lent offers a great opportunity to abstain from these foods which seem to test our willpower. Here is a list of 11 generally unhealthy foods along with their healthier alternatives.
1. Deep-Fried Foods
Doubles, aloo pies, fried chicken and chips, bake and shark—some of Trinidad’s signature foods are not the best for our health. What do these foods have in common? They’re all deep-fried! Frying not only triples a food’s caloric content, but cooking foods at high temperatures can cause the formation of cancer-causing compounds. Fried foods can cause weight gain and the potential development of lifestyle related non-communicable diseases (NCDs) such as obesity, heart disease, diabetes and even cancer. If we had to put this into caloric terms, one doubles contains an average 350 calories and 11 grams of fat. Eat three doubles for breakfast and you will already have consumed half a day’s worth of energy.
Alternatives: Cut the fat and keep the flavour by learning how to ‘fry’ foods in the oven. Simply dip fish or chicken pieces in a beaten egg, coat with Panko, crushed cornflakes or breadcrumbs and bake in a oven at 350°F until golden brown. Replace deep-fried potato chips with oven-baked sweet potato chips, tossed with varying spice blends.
2. Soft Drinks and Other Sugary Beverages
Added sugar seems to plague every aspect of the modern diet. Sugar is considered unhealthy because it provides empty calories (a lot of calories with no nutrients) which is also linked to the development of NCDs. It’s difficult to quit sugar mostly because it’s an addictive appetite stimulant that leads to cravings and binge eating.
In Trinidad, the foods we hold dear to our hearts just aren’t the same without their soft drink counterparts. For example, roti and red drink, doubles and apple fizz, pelau and blackcurrant juice. These brightly coloured, fizzy and sugary drinks trigger that dopamine response which keeps us going back for more. When you consume a sugary beverage, your brain does not register it as food. This means that you don’t automatically compensate for this by eating less food which results in drastically increasing your caloric intake—this can lead to weight gain and the development of NCDs.
Fruit juice, even freshly-squeezed juice is often mistakenly assumed to be healthy. It is actually nothing more than fruit-flavoured sugar water with the same or even higher caloric and sugar content as soft drinks. While it is true that these juices can be high in Vitamin C and other antioxidants, the amount of liquid sugar that you are consuming must be taken into consideration. It is much easier to drink 10 oranges than it is to eat 10 oranges.
Sports drinks have slightly lower sugar content than soft drinks and fruit juices and contain added electrolytes designed to replace lost nutrients in competition. However, unless you are an athlete, you do not need to consume sports drinks.
Alternatives: Drink water to quench your thirst. Flavour water or club soda with fruit slices and herbs for a vitamin-infused beverage. Try fresh green vegetable juices with small amounts of fruit added—or better yet, just eat the fruit whenever you’re feeling for something sweet. If you’re a highly active person, drink coconut water or add rehydration salts to your water to replace lost electrolytes instead of relying on commercial sports drinks.
3. Packaged Junk Foods
Almost every bagged item on the snack shelf has been created in a factory, contain little to no nutritional value but do have plenty calories, salt and fats. These include chips (even the ‘healthy’ ones), puffed corn snacks and even flavoured popcorn. These tend to be highly processed and rich in unhealthy ingredients and artificial chemicals. The packaging is usually brightly coloured, aimed at luring the unsuspecting consumer. It is best to keep these out of sight so you are not tempted to graze absent-mindedly; once you start, it’s difficult to stop. Why? One ounce (11 chips) of a standard corn chip contains 150 calories and 8 grams of fat. Compare this to one cup of homemade air-popped popcorn, which contains roughly 30 calories and no fat.
Alternatives: Prepare healthy snacks at home (this is a definite money-saver!). Air-popped popcorn and homemade kale or bhagi chips are great substitutes for packaged potato or corn chips. You can even slice root vegetables like beets and sweet potatoes into thin rounds and bake them for a healthier crisp. If you’re craving something on the crunchier side, baby carrots or ¼ cup of nuts will get the job done.
4. Milk Chocolate, Candy Bars and Sweeties
Chocolate is actually quite healthy—cocoa and dark chocolate are powerful sources of biologically active and functional antioxidants with a multitude of health benefits that improve several risk factors for disease. What’s not so healthy is sugary milk chocolate. Studies show that once milk is added to pure chocolate, it binds with some of the antioxidants rendering them unavailable for absorption by the body.
Candy bars are high in sugar, processed fats and refined flours that are low in essential nutrients. They are engineered to be extremely palatable so you crave them and eat more. Their high-fat content may cause short-term satiety however, due to how your body metabolises these treats, hunger pangs are sure to return in no time. Many protein and granola bars have a high sugar content similar to candy bars. Needless to say, sweets and other candies are pure sugar with zero nutritional benefit. On average, the standard 2-ounce candy bar contains about 250 calories, 11 grams of fat and 27 grams of sugar. For comparison, one cup of mixed fruit gives you around 65 calories, 10 grams of sugar and zero fat.
Alternatives: One ounce of 70 percent or higher real dark chocolate will provide you with a great range of antioxidants along with iron, magnesium, copper, potassium and manganese at 170 calories (Bonus points for choosing local dark chocolate made with our own Trinitario beans!). Another healthy snack option between meals is one to two servings of fruit that will supply you with lots of vitamins, potassium and fibre to keep your gut and immune system strong. (One serving of fruit is about the size of a tennis ball).
5. Refined Carbohydrates
The easiest way to clean up your diet is to switch from refined carbohydrates to whole grains. Refined grains are milled, a process that strips out the bran and the germ from the grain to give them a finer texture and longer shelf life. The most common examples are white flour, white breads, rotis and pasta. Whole grains in comparison have not been stripped and their nutrients remain intact. Whole grains are great sources of dietary fibre and other nutrients like potassium, magnesium, selenium and phosphorus. They are found as single foods such as brown rice, oats, barley and quinoa, or as ingredients in products like whole grain bread or whole-wheat pasta. A high-fibre diet will help normalize and maintain bowel movements and gut health, control blood sugar levels, lower cholesterol levels, keep you satiated and help you achieve a healthy weight.
Alternatives: Choose whole grains rather than refined grains. Swap commercial white bread for whole grain bread, sprouted grain bread or sourdough bread. Swap white rice for brown, black or red rice, white crackers for multigrain or whole-wheat crackers, white pasta for whole grain pasta, white flour for green fig flour and dumplings with provisions. Make roti with whole-wheat flour and vegetable purée like carrot or pumpkin for a super nutrient boost!
6. Ice Cream
There isn’t much nutritional benefit to be derived from ice cream as most commercial ice cream is loaded with fat and sugar. It is easy to eat more than the recommended single serving which already contributes between 200 to 350 calories per ½ cup with roughly 16 to 21 grams of fat. Add in a waffle or sugar cone and toppings and you can be consuming well over 500 calories; the same caloric content as a meal.
Alternatives: Make banana ‘ice cream’ at home by blending frozen bananas with vanilla extract, cocoa powder or natural nut butters. ½ cup of this will give you around 100 calories with less than 1 gram from fat (unless you add the nut butter). Save the ice cream outings for special occasions.
7. Fast Food
Fast food is notorious for being a cheap, convenient food option on the go. Unfortunately, most fast food chains only serve low-nutrient junk foods. Most franchises, especially international franchises offer mass-produced, highly engineered ‘food-like’ products with very little to no nutritional value. Bear in mind, for every cent you save at a fast food outlet, it may cost you triple in the future as poor health is quite expensive.
Alternatives: While home-cooked meals or ‘slow food’ will always be the ideal choice for dining, there are some fast food restaurants that offer healthier alternatives. When purchasing salads, ask for grilled meats and the salad dressing on the side and you can also trade croutons for some heart-healthy beans. Choose broth-based soups over cream-based and opt for wholegrain breads and lean meats like grilled chicken or fish when ordering sandwiches. Swap mayonnaise and garlic sauce for hummus, olive oil or guacamole.
8. Industrial Vegetable Oils and Margarine
We are often advised to consume seed and vegetable oils, as they have proved to lower blood cholesterol levels in the short term. Refined vegetable oils such as soybean, corn, grapeseed and canola oil have undergone very harsh processing methods and include high heat, bleaching and the toxic solvent hexane. They contain very high amounts of omega-6 fatty acids and are sensitive to oxidation and damage once incorporated into our body fat stores and cellular membranes. There have been serious concerns about their increased consumption; recent research has linked these oils to an increased risk of chronic diseases such as heart disease and cancer as they can cause oxidative stress and inflammation in the body, despite lowering cholesterol levels. Margarine is also a highly processed ‘food-like’ product that has been engineered to taste like butter. It is loaded with artificial ingredients and usually made with industrial vegetable oils that have been hydrogenated to make them solid i.e. they form trans fatty acids. (Manufacturers are allowed to label their products with ‘no trans fat’ as long as they contain less than ½ gram per serving, which is still a lot).
Alternatives: Healthier fats like virgin coconut oil and grass-fed butter (avoid if diabetic or at risk for heart disease), olive oil, avocado, nuts and seeds. Choose low-fat cooking methods like baking, roasting, grilling, poaching etc. to prepare meals. Note that 1-teaspoon of oil or butter is 1 serving.
9. High Calorie ‘Coffee’ Drinks
Coffee is actually a very healthy choice, loaded with antioxidants that can prevent certain diseases like diabetes and Parkinson’s. Caffeine has also been linked to memory improvement and muscle endurance. However, coffee is a convenient vehicle for cream and sugar; many coffee franchises have been popping up and offering concoctions that take a once healthy drink and turn it into a liquid, empty calorie wasteland that is just as unhealthy as any other sugary beverage. If it is loaded with artificial flavourings, artificial creamers and sugar and most likely comes from a container or package, it’s not going to be good for you. It’s very easy to turn a simple cup of coffee into a 200 to 350 calorie sugar bomb.
Alternatives: Unsweetened coffee or teas are calorie-free choices if you’re needing a caffeine boost. Add a splash of milk or milk alternative if black coffee isn’t your thing. Herbal tisanes like floral blends, cinnamon, ginger and turmeric are great caffeine-free choices. We have the beautiful Robusta coffee bean growing here in Trinbago should you choose to support local!
10. Processed Meats
Processed meat contains various chemical compounds that are not naturally present in fresh meat but are harmful to our health. These foods include all meat that has been smoked, salted, cured, dried or canned. Some examples are sausages, hot dogs, bologna, salami, pepperoni, bacon, cured and smoked hams, among others. Even the Caribbean staple ‘corned beef’ is considered a processed meat. These foods often contain high amounts of salt along with N-nitroso cancer-causing preservatives. Studies show that consumption of processed meats have a higher risk of serious diseases including diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, colon and stomach cancer. Most of this research is observational and it has not been proved that these processed products have caused these diseases, however, the statistical link is strong and consistent.
Alternatives: Choose fresh, lean meats like chicken and turkey breast, eggs and wild-caught fish. If consuming red meats like beef and goat, trim off all visible fat. If you choose to eat cured meats like bacon and sausages, try to buy them locally from artisans who do not add a lot of unhealthy ingredients.
11. ‘Healthy’ Breakfast Cereal
Sugar-sweetened breakfast cereal is considered a junk food, often fortified with synthetic vitamins and negligible traces of whole grains. Many cereals are cruelly targeted towards children with cereal boxes plastered with bright colours and familiar cartoon characters. Adults are mislead by unsupported health claims such as ‘whole-grain’ and ‘low-fat’, ‘fat-free’ and the now popular ‘gluten-free’. Don’t be fooled by the labels! What you really should be looking for is the Nutrition Facts label and the ingredients list. If you see a grocery list of refined grains, sugar and artificial additives, put the box back on the shelf. One cup of sugary cereal generally offers 120 to 200 calories, 10-15 grams of sugar and very little fibre. Starting your day with a high sugar meal is a surefire way to experience a blood sugar crash later on, followed by hunger and intense cravings.
Alternatives: Whole ingredient, high-fibre foods such as oatmeal, porridge made from rolled oats or quinoa, bran flakes or any cereal that has less than 2 grams of sugar per serving. Look for boxed cereals that have less than 5 grams of sugar, more than 5 grams each of fibre and protein per serving. If you’re missing the sweet element in your breakfast, slice a banana in there or add a pinch of stevia.