How To Ditch Junk Food And Reboot Your Diet

If your goal for the new year is a healthier you, those cabinets full of sugary snacks and salty, over-processed junk food are your first serious roadblock. It’s time to throw out your junk food in a dramatic blaze of glory so you’ll stick to your convictions. Here’s a step-by-step guide to help you clean out the pantry once and for all, replace that junk food with healthy alternatives that will still fulfil your cravings, and jump start your path to a healthier diet you’ll actually stick to.

Photo remixed from originals by gerry and Glory Foods.

Be Courageous: You’re About To Make Some Difficult Choices

Before we get started, the first thing you’ll need to do is summon as much courage as possible. To make change like this stick requires doing it in a dramatic way so you won’t be tempted to just slip into your old habits, and educating yourself so you have healthy options that hit the same places on your palate that are served by the otherwise awful food you may have in your fridge or pantry.

To help with the process, we invited our favourite nutritionists to share their suggestions. Seattle-based nutritionist and Registered Dietitian Andy Bellatti, and Boston-based nutritionist and wellness counsellor Alannah DiBona both have a lot of experience helping individuals get their diets on the right track for their individual health and well being, and offered their suggestions for this piece.

Out With The Bad: Throw Out The Junk Food That’s Holding Your Health Hostage

The first thing we need to do is give you a fresh start. Head into the kitchen and get a large garbage bag. Open up all of the kitchen cabinets and get ready to throw out (or donate) the junk food. Here’s your plan of attack.

Photo by Javier Aroche.

First Pass: Throw Out All Of Your Obviously Terrible Food

Lollies, chips, biscuits, soft drink, sugar-laden fruit juice — all of it. Don’t worry, we’ll head to the supermarket in just a little while, so you won’t have to live without snacks for too long.

Second Pass: Learn How To Read A Nutrition Label

If you don’t often read the labels on the food you buy and eat, start now and use them to help you decide what to keep and what to throw out. Take a look at the Australian Government’s guide to recommended daily servings. Alannah DiBona has some specific tips on how to read nutrition labels:

  1. Read the ingredient listing: Ingredients are listed in order of decreasing volume. Whatever the product contains the most of will appear first on the list of ingredients, and so on in decreasing order. If you see fat, sugar or salt listed front and centre, you can safely assume that the food in question isn’t going to be among the healthier options for you!
  2. Refer to the nutrition facts:
    • First, check out the serving size. Note the size of a single serving and how many servings are in a package.
    • Then look into total kilojoules per serving. Think about the serving size and how many servings you’re actually consuming. If you double the servings you eat, you double the kilojoules and nutrients, including the per cent Daily Value (% DV).
    • Limit your total fat and sodium. Most people require no more than 56-78 grams of fat per day. This includes no more than 16 grams of saturated fat.
  3. In general, as you think about the amount of kilojoules in a food per serving, remember that for a 9000-kilojoule diet:
    • 200 kilojoules per serving is considered low;
    • 500 kilojoules per serving is considered moderate; and
    • 1600 kilojoules or more per serving is considered high.

As you familiarise yourself with the nutrition labels, start tossing the foods that seem OK at first blush, but that you know aren’t good for you based on their ingredients and nutrition facts. Those frozen dinners? The sodium content in there — regardless of the “light” label — is out of control. The same applies to a lot of other frozen foods, so keep an eye out. Approach the foods you used to think of as OK for you with a new eye, flip them over and decide based on the label. Odds are you’ll be surprised.

Third Pass: Decide On The Difficult Things

Now it’s time to start thinking about everything that’s left. This is where you consider the difficult foods that you really want to keep but you know probably aren’t at all good for you. We’re not there with you, so we can force you to throw it out, but we will give you this advice: you’ll be more likely to stick with the food choices you’re about to make when you get to the supermarket if you don’t have your old staples to fall back on.

Photo by Sean MacEntee.

It’s easy to throw out chips, soft drink and lollies. It’s difficult however to toss out the frozen pizzas you rely on for a quick snack when you’re hungry in the afternoon. Don’t try to convince yourself that you can keep bad food if you change your habits either, like keeping the jug of fatty dressing in your fridge if you promise yourself you really will only use a tablespoon per serving. We all know you won’t — breaking habits isn’t that easy.

When I tackled this job myself, I found myself with a large garbage bag full of food that I probably should never have picked up anyway — a lot of it was pretty old, since I try to eat well anyway. Since I have a relatively small apartment and kitchen, there wasn’t much to throw out. That said, that bag was pretty heavy. I enjoy salty and savoury snacks, so I had to toss out two or three different varieties of salty snack mix, tortilla chips, cured meat in the fridge, corn-syrup laden dipping sauces and condiments, and frozen dinners that may be quick to microwave but have incredible sodium and fat content. If you’re about tackle this yourself, don’t worry — my pantry was as empty as yours.

Stop, Think And Plan Before You Re-Stock The Pantry

Now that the junk is in the trash and your cabinets are bare, it’s time to think about alternatives. You might think to put the planning before tossing, but we put them in this order to force you to go to the supermarket with after coming up with healthy alternatives.

As you make your shopping list, replace the foods you normally would buy with healthy options you’ll enjoy. Think about are the types of flavours that you like, and look for healthy alternatives that hit those notes. Like I mentioned, I tend to enjoy salty and savoury snacks, so I was eager to find better foods that hit the same flavour profile. If you give up your beloved bag of potato chips for tortilla chips or popcorn, you’re more likely to stick with your healthy diet change than if you toss out a bag of Maltesers and hope you’ll learn to love dried apricots. Here are some suggestions to get your list started.

Photo by Ollie Crafoord.

  • Savoury Foods: If potato chips and beef jerky dominate your snack cabinet, Alannah has some suggestions:
    • Mixed nuts are always a good snack if they’re eaten in moderation. Try unroasted and unsalted, if you enjoy them.
    • Air-popped popcorn is always a great alternative to chips, and you can season and salt it yourself.
    • Tortilla chips and salsa or cut vegetables and hummus are also great savoury alternatives to keep in the fridge or pantry.
    • If you love dipping sauces, Andy Bellatti also suggests hummus, but also reminds us that guacamole and pesto are also tasty, savoury alternatives.
  • Sweet Foods: For those of us with a sweet tooth, getting rid of the lollies, chocolates or baked, processed sweets that you may have lying around your house can be difficult.
    • Trade in cakes for greek yoghurt with honey, berries or bananas.
    • Try fruits that are naturally sweet, like figs, raisins and dates, or develop a love for dark chocolate.
    • Andy Bellatti suggests that if soft serve is your weakness, this trick may be for you: “freeze a few cups of sliced bananas (after this trick, I think you’ll have sliced bananas in your freezer all the time) and then process them in a food processor for a few minutes (you may need a small amount of water depending on how powerful your food processor is). The end result is soft-serve ‘banana ice cream’. You can dress this up by adding cinnamon, cocoa powder, vanilla extract and a spoonful of peanut or almond butter into the food processor before processing for a really great frozen treat.”
    • Lifehacker’s own Jason Chen suggests putting some seedless grapes in the freezer for a day, then break them out as a sweet snack that can satisfy your ice cream craving.
  • Sour and Bitter Foods: If sour treats tickle your palate, there’s a really easy fix for you: citrus fruits and fruit juices.
    • Try some plain yoghurt to get a little tangy bite into your mornings. Alannah suggests adding a side of citrus fruit like oranges or kiwis to round out a breakfast or snack.
    • Grapefruit is also a great option and a favourite of dieters everywhere.
    • You can also try low-fat cheeses like feta or a nice brie with the rind on to hit the spot.
    • If bitter is more your style, make sure to add some dark chocolate to your shopping list (baking chocolate really hits the bitter notes well.)
    • Bitter food lovers can also munch on some raw zucchini, maybe with a yoghurt-based dip like tzatziki.

As for broad alternatives, Andy Bellatti suggests that you try to get as many whole grains in your diet as possible, and make sure that those whole grains are the first ingredient on the label, or high-fibre breads that are 100 per cent whole grains with 4 or 5 grams per slice, or wholemeal pasta. If you love toast and sandwiches, high-fibre bread is a great way to avoid white flour and bread laden with corn syrup as a major ingredient while you get fibre in your diet at the same time.

This is just the tip of the iceberg, but they’re all great suggestions. The key here is to find healthier alternatives to foods that you already love and try them on for size. If some of the foods you have or had in your pantry have healthier options, check them out when you get to the supermarket — just make sure to read the label to make sure they’re actually healthy and not just marketed as such.

Photo by Lori Stone.

Find A Personal Motivator To Help You Commit

Andy Bellatti suggested that you tie your healthy eating goals to some personal motivator. For example, you’re concerned about the environment or social good, he proposes: “Take on changes that are positive for your health and also socially conscious. For example — resolve to do more of your shopping at a farmers market. If you eat meat, look into purchasing meat that is raised in more sustainable ways, fed a healthier diet (i.e.: grass-fed beef vs corn-fed beef, eggs from free-range chickens) and treated more humanely. All of these changes provide benefits for human health as well as local economies, animal welfare and the environmental landscape.”

Alannah DiBona agrees, and also notes that if you’ve been on the diet roller-coaster before, you should stop and consider your reasons before you go any further. “How many times have you done this before? What’s different this time? Why do you want to make the change? These are important questions to consider, otherwise you may be setting yourself up for failure. This is an important commitment to your quality of life, so don’t fear trying something new, or taking a new approach.”

Alternatively, use something close and personal to motivate you, like a family member or friend who’s ill, or the desire to spend more time with your family and friends. Personally, I’m going through a very similar experience, and not to diminish the causes of social good and environmental protection, I also rather selfishly want to minimise my risk factors for illnesses that run in my family. The key here is whatever you choose to do, make sure you have a motivating force behind it that makes you stick to your guns when the going gets rough and you’re tempted to buy a box of cream pies from the convenience store.

Finally, share that motivator with friends and solicit their support. Recruit your family, friends or colleagues to join in with you, or find online communities that will offer some support, like previously mentioned Daily Challenge or Fitocracy.

Photo by Amy.

Head To The Supermarket Armed With Knowledge And Alternatives

Now you’re ready to go shopping. First, relax. Up to this point we’ve put a lot of emphasis on making sure you have healthy options to turn to in favour of junk food, and that you have the knowledge to make smart decisions. Compose yourself and resist the urge to go off and make choices you’ll regret when you get home. Don’t go off, buy all the right things, come home with bags of kale chips (which are delicious, by the way), muesli and other healthy foods, only to discover the that after a week, the thrill has passed. Here are a couple of rules to follow while you’re in the store:

Photo by Brianna.

  • Don’t obsess over the small things. Be smart and use your judgement, sure, but don’t pick up something you’ve clearly never heard of just because the label looks good. That’s a quick path to buying food that you “have to be in the mood for”, which is code for “sits at the back of the pantry until its expiration date”.
  • Moderation is key. Don’t deprive yourself too much. You won’t be able to find super-healthy alternatives to some of the staples in your diet, and that’s OK. Look for healthier options or versions, but don’t buy something you’ll hate just because it’s better for you. You won’t use it, and you’ll eventually give up and go back to what you prefer. The same applies for foods that you know aren’t great for you but you’d hate to give up. There’s no faster way to make you want an unhealthy food than forcing yourself to give it up forever. Find an alternative, or buy smaller packages so you can treat yourself. Just make sure those occasions are really treats and not the norm.

If you catch yourself putting something in your trolley because you “feel like you have to”, take it back out and look for something that’s a better fit for you, both for your taste buds and your health. Repeat the process until you feel good about what you’re buying.

One great suggestion Andy made was to arm yourself with a cookbook and some new, healthy recipes you want to try. This accomplishes two tasks: First, it cultivates a love of healthy food that will stay with you and help you stick to your rebooted diet. Second, it gets you away from processed foods. You won’t find food dyes, artificial sweeteners and industrial cooking oils in most cookbooks, and the more you cook for yourself and try new, healthier ingredients and recipes, the less you’ll rely on foods that come with those things cooked in.

Stick To Your Guns

Once you’ve stocked your kitchen and pantry shelves with healthy options, the hard part begins: making sure you don’t let it all fall apart. First of all, you will make mistakes, and you will fall off the rails now and again. That’s fine. Accept your mistakes, accept that you’re allowed to reward yourself with empty calories now and again, or go out to eat and enjoy a big fancy meal, and move on. The real challenge will be to make sure those mistakes and rewards are infrequent.

Photo by v smoothe.

Alannah suggests talking to a dietitian or nutritionist (like herself and Andy) or even with your doctor when you start down this path. Even a short session can produce a lot of information about what’s best for your lifestyle, preferences and tastes. Use your support network to help you as well. Share the healthy substitutions that have worked for you, and ask for their suggestions and opinions. Your family and friends can help — or at least present an audience you don’t want to disappoint.

Not everyone can afford to clean out their pantry and buy all new groceries, so if you’re budget=conscious, consider saving this until the next time your cabinets are looking a bit bare and you need to go to the grocery store to stock up anyway. If you’re planning a healthier 2012, now is a great time to start thinking about these kinds of changes.

I’ve just started down this road myself. I’m in the process of finding healthy alternatives to the snacks that I love and discovering new recipes to try and snacks to enjoy. It’s not a perfect science, and unlike those reality shows where someone swoops into your home, empties your kitchen, and takes you shopping to replace it all, you won’t magically be a healthier person at the end of the episode. Even so, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t give it a shot. You only have your health and well-being to gain.

Photo by DC Central Kitchen.

Andy Bellatti, MS, RD is a Seattle-based Nutritionist and the author of the nutrition blog Small Bites. You can follow him on Twitter at @andybellatti.

Alannah DiBona, MA, MS, is a Boston-based nutritionist and wellness counselor, and the woman behind

Both graciously volunteered their expertise for this story, and we thank them.

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