Unhealthy diets are Australia’s number one preventable risk factor contributing to disease.
We’re surrounded by information on taking care of ourselves, and we all know healthy eating is an important part of the equation. So why is it so hard to stick to a balanced diet and avoid junk food?
Food is more than just fuel for our body—it’s part of our social and emotional lives. Lifestyle, stress and convenience play a big part in making unhealthy choices, even when we know better.
The psychology of junk food
There’s more to healthy eating than knowing what’s good for us. Junk food and unhealthy choices are available everywhere we go. In the supermarket, at the checkout (even if we avoid the lolly aisle), or at the servo when we pop in for petrol. It’s promoted everywhere we go.
Unhealthy choices are always there, and if you’re feeling vulnerable—particularly if you’re busy, stressed or tired—they’re ready to exploit you.
We eat for a lot of different reasons: when you’re hungry, on social or family occasions when you’re expected to indulge, or sometimes you may comfort eat to make yourself feel better.
Comfort eating (also called emotional eating), can be triggered by stress or anxiety, or can become a habit formed as a child. If comfort eating is part of your struggle with unhealthy foods, you can try:
- Focussing on getting enough sleep—there’s a link between fatigue and comfort eating
- Starting a food diary to identify what triggers your emotional eating—when do you do it and why
- Trying to eat healthier foods if you do comfort eat
- Look for new ways to manage stress and relax
- Don’t be afraid to talk to your doctor or other health professional for help. It’s a common issue and they’ll support you.
- Avoiding guilt—changing your eating habits is a long-term goal and feeling bad can lead you right back to unhealthy
Just as you can feel surrounded by junk food designed to destroy your willpower, myths about healthy food choices are everywhere too.
- Skipping meals: Don’t let feeling guilty tempt you to skip a meal to ‘save up’ for a splurge or make up for some junk you’ve eaten—you’ll be doing more harm than good. Research shows skipping meals can lead to eating more when you do eat and increase your stomach capacity. If your stomach size increases, you need more food to feel full.
- Weight loss superfoods: There are no magical foods that guarantee weight loss or burn body fat. The best choice is a balanced diet and small, sustainable changes to your lifestyle.
- Crash diets: If you lose weight quickly, you’re likely to put it back on within five years.
The takeaway trap
Even if you’re determined to eat healthily, being busy means you may end up eating out and looking for something convenient. Even with the best intentions, it can be tough to stay on the straight and narrow with takeaway options.
It’s tough to choose a healthy takeaway, because:
- It can be hard to regulate portion sizes—the food isn’t on a normal plate or bowl, so it’s tough to judge how much you’re eating
- it’s a slippery slope—you may fall into the ‘upsize’ or ‘combo’ temptation and end up with sides and unhealthy extras you didn’t plan on
- there are a lot more healthier options around these days, but you still don’t know what ingredients are going into most takeaways
- most ‘fast food’ choices don’t offer balanced meals containing vegetables, protein and carbs
Never too late
If you’re stuck in a cycle of unhealthy eating and choosing junk foods, don’t be too hard on yourself. It’s tough to resist in unhealthy food environments specifically designed to encourage unhealthy choices.
There’s always time to turn your diet around and start making healthier choices. Every positive choice makes a big difference. Lose the guilt and move forward.