Is Junk Food OK in Moderation?

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Junk food can be eaten in moderation.
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Fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy and lean proteins — these are the foods that should be included in a healthy diet. Does this mean you have to avoid junk food completely, depriving yourself of treats you really enjoy? Not at all. The key is to enjoy those types of food in moderation.

Tip

You can fit any food into your diet in moderation; however, these foods should not take the place of more nutritious foods that your body needs for proper function.

The Problem With Junk Food

You've likely been told your whole life not to eat too much junk food. "It's bad for you," well-meaning people will say. And while it's true that people should eat less junk food, it's important to stop and ask yourself why you're aiming to limit certain foods in your diet.

"Junk food" is a loose term, but it's usually used to refer to food that has little nutritional value. Organizations like the Mayo Clinic and American Heart Association specifically refer to foods that are highly processed and are high in calories, added sugar, saturated fat and sodium. In addition, these foods have few of the many vitamins, minerals and antioxidants that your body needs to function as well as ward off chronic diseases. Think cookies, sweets, chips, sugary cereals and fast food.

The Mayo Clinic cites that about 60 percent of the calories in the average diet come from processed foods, and that people are filling up on these foods in lieu of nutrient-rich foods like fruit, vegetables, whole grains, dairy and lean protein. In fact, less than one-fourth of the U.S. population gets the recommended five daily servings of fruits and vegetables. This kind of diet makes it easy to overconsume calories, leading to weight gain.

Read more: 7 Surprising Reasons You're Hankering for Junk Food — and How to Quash the Cravings

All Food in Moderation

This doesn't mean you have to swear off junk food entirely — cookies, potato chips or soda can still be part of a healthy diet as long as you don't eat too much of them. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015-2020, put forth by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, recommend limiting added sugar, saturated fat and sodium. Furthermore, if you are getting enough healthy food in your diet, you will still be able to have a treat or two without exceeding the number of calories you should have in a day.

The guidelines state that less than 10 percent of the calories you consume should come from added sugar and less than 10 percent of the calories from saturated fat. You should also aim to keep your sodium consumption below 2,300 milligrams.

Per the guidelines, if you are aiming for a 2,000-calorie diet and include 2.5 cups of vegetables, 2 cups of fruit, 6 ounces of whole grains, 3 cups of dairy and 5.5 ounces of protein-rich food, along with 27 grams of healthy oils, then you can still have 270 calories (approximately 14 percent of their caloric intake) of foods of your discretion.

Example of a Moderate Snack

You might opt to enjoy a snack of potato chips and a lemon-lime soda, but you'd need to be careful. According to the USDA, a 1-ounce serving of plain potato chips has 149 calories, and a 12-ounce serving of lemon-lime soda has 151 calories. This would total 300 calories and exceed your ideal calorie range.

Additionally, the soda has more than 38 grams of sugar. That's about 152 calories from sugar, or 7 percent of a 2,000-calorie diet. Just that one soda can come close to meeting the recommended sugar allowance, so drinking soda would require restricting any added sugar elsewhere in your diet.

Read more: 10 Foods You Don't Realize Are Packed With Sugar

If you're trying to improve your diet by reducing the amount of junk you eat and increasing your intake of nutritious food, the American Heart Association recommends preparing healthy meals and snacks at home, so you have more control over what you're eating. Additionally, avoid skipping meals, which will make you overly hungry and more likely to make poor food choices.

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