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You Don't Have To Give Up Junk Food To Maintain Your Health, This Dietitian Says

A veggie patty or using wheat buns and lean ground beef are healthier approaches to burgers.

It’s called junk food for a reason.

It contributes no nutritional value, but you don’t have to avoid it to maintain long-term health.

“No vitamins, no minerals. There’s usually no fiber,” said Melissa Mendez, a registered dietitian at Parkland Hospital. “Most of the time it consists of a lot of fatty foods, a lot of sugar and a lot of sodium, which could increase risk of diabetes, heart disease and hypertension.”

However, Mendez thinks junk food every now and then isn't a bad thing. She also believes it’s unrealistic to tell people to stop eating it.

“I feel that people may have a craving for it and might think about it constantly," she said. "And if we completely stop it, there might be a point where you end up going back to that junk food and having more than usual.”

Instead, Mendez recommends finding ways to make junk food healthier. For instance, add vegetables to pizza or macaroni and cheese. Use whole wheat buns and lean ground beef for burgers. Eat smaller portions. Or avoid buying junk food for periods at a time.

"If we’re trying to manage our weight to try and limit the risk of those medical conditions in the future, it’s something that we have to do,” she said.

Interview Highlights

When not to eat junk food: Avoid eating in front of the television. We’ll consume more calories because we’re focused on the television and don’t think about what we’re eating. Take small bites, chewing on that food and enjoying the moment. That should not only make you feel fuller, it’s also going to limit how much you're eating and limiting those calories.

Tips for indulging: Eat healthy snacks first. For something sweet, perhaps a cup of fruit, a cup of yogurt, a slice of whole wheat bread, celery sticks or a couple of whole grain crackers with peanut butter. For something savory, crunchy or salty, try a cup of pretzels, a string cheese with a couple of whole-grain crackers. For really indulging, it's about portion control. Instead of buying the big bag of chips, buy the small-portion bags and just have one every couple of days. Or don’t buy at all. For example, skip buying ice cream one week and wait until next week’s grocery shopping.

Healthier forms of junk food: A study published in the Journal of Nutrition and Diabetes in 2016 compared 8,000 items in their regular and low-fat, low-calorie versions. It found out those items had higher volumes of sugar in them. When you take out something delicious like fat, you lose flavor. They’ve got to add flavor somewhere to sell the product. Where do we add it? We add it with the sugar. It’s not every company, but we have to check the food label and compare products because some companies have to substitute that flavor. Also, check for sodium and saturated fat.

Some healthier ways to make junk food

  • Hamburgers: A whole wheat bun, lean ground beef. Instead of mayonnaise, use hummus, catsup or mustard.
  • Pizza: Portion size always plays a part. Try one slice and then have a salad on the side. Limit the meat and adding fruit or vegetables on top.
  • French fries: Bake them. That would be healthier than having them fried. Limit the salt you add to them as well. 
  • Ice cream: Again, portion control. Instead of getting the banana split, get just one scoop of ice cream. That way, you can still enjoy without getting all those calories, sugar and the fat.


Interview responses have been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Sam Baker is KERA's senior editor and local host for Morning Edition. The native of Beaumont, Texas, also edits and produces radio commentaries and Vital Signs, a series that's part of the station's Breakthroughs initiative. He also was the longtime host of KERA 13’s Emmy Award-winning public affairs program On the Record. He also won an Emmy in 2008 for KERA’s Sharing the Power: A Voter’s Voice Special, and has earned honors from the Associated Press and the Public Radio News Directors Inc.