A client recently asked how often she could eat junk food. She knows my philosophy is the 80:20 rule: Eat healthy foods as often as possible, at least 80 percent of the time, and enjoy less healthy food less than 20 percent of the time, if that's what you want.
I've seen this approach work well with clients who were chronic dieters but couldn't lose weight. Once I give them permission to have "forbidden foods," those foods lose their power, and they usually can make healthier choices.
Any food that is highly processed, high-calorie and low in nutrients is junk food. Such food also is usually high in sugars, salt and saturated or trans fats. Some evidence says it can be as addictive as alcohol and drugs.
Eating a diet high in junk food is linked to a higher risk of obesity, depression, digestive issues, heart disease and stroke, type 2 diabetes, cancer and early death. And frequency matters.
A review of studies on fast food and heart health found that having fast food more than once a week was linked to a higher risk of obesity. Eating it more than twice a week was associated with a higher risk of metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes and death from coronary heart disease.
This is disturbing, as nearly half of American adults eat fast food at least once a week.
And because junk food lacks fiber, eating too much of it can cause constipation.
One junk food meal also can narrow your arteries, leading to increased blood pressure. And the quick spike in blood sugar from junk foods high in refined carbohydrates and sugars can cause a surge in insulin, leading to a quick drop in blood sugar. That leaves you feeling tired, cranky and hungry for more.
The amount of inflammation and oxidative stress your body will experience after eating occasional junk food likely is linked to your choices over time.
If you want to enjoy junk food once in a while, look at your overall health habits. Do you smoke or drink too much? Do you exercise regularly and eat plenty of vegetables, fruit, legumes, fish, nuts and seeds, and whole grains? It seems you can "get away with" occasional junk food more easily when you follow a healthy lifestyle most of the time. So think about your ratio of healthy to less healthy foods. Are you achieving 80:20?
One healthy meal a day worked into the typical American diet could reduce your body's overall stress and inflammation. Every meal is an opportunity to improve your health.
Based on current research, my advice to my client remains the same: Once you're aware of all of the short- and long-term effects of junk food and you still want some, have it less than once a week and savor it. Then get back to nourishing, nutritious foods.