At SmartyPants, we’re all about upgrading – from making the best possible ingredient choices in our supplements, to making the most out of life by trying new things, or improving on what we already do. The SmartyPants Upgrade Series is dedicated to helping you make life and the things you love just a little bit better.
One of the best things about childhood (if not THE best thing) is that it’s relatively care-free. There’s no worrying about disposals backing up, paying taxes, or what a corn dog is going to do to your cholesterol. As a kid, whether a food was “good for you,” meant was it good tasting for you. As adults, it’s not so simple. We pay our taxes and we know that the food we eat comes with a price – some add value, while others take a toll.
But what if you could make your favorite childhood junk foods a little less junky?
There are two easy ways that you can do this, but, first, it’s important to know why a food might get labeled “junk” in the first place.
THE TRUTH ABOUT JUNK
Two reasons that a food might be labeled a “junk” food are 1) the food is high in sugar with no additional nutrients or 2) high in oxidized fats – polyunsaturated fatty acids that have been damaged by high cooking temperatures (like those used when frying). Of course, there are other reasons, such as strange food additives and chemicals, but these are two big ones that you can do something about.
The problem with sugar is not sugar itself. Sugar, like protein and fat, is just a nutrient. When we eat sugar, our bodies break it down and store it as glycogen, which our muscles and brain use to function. When our glycogen stores are full, our bodies store the extra sugar as fat, which can also be burned for fuel if we use up all our glycogen.
The problem comes when we eat too much sugar with no additional nutrients.
The body requires certain nutrients, such as B vitamins, to digest sugar, while other nutrients, like vitamin C, can compete with sugar for absorption. Sugar packaged in the form of whole foods, such as fruit, comes with the necessary nutrients needed to break it down and turn it into something useful. But sugar on its own – i.e. candy and other junk foods – can rob the body of vitamin and mineral stores. (Read here for why we use sugar in SmartyPants.)
Like sugar, the problem with fatty foods is not so much the fat. We know that fat is an essential part of a healthy diet. However, your classic junk foods – french fries, potato chips, doughnuts, etc. – are typically cooked in vegetable oils: corn oil, cottonseed oil, canola (rapeseed) oil, sunflower oil, safflower oil, and soybean oil. Vegetable oils are extremely fragile polyunsaturated fats. The more saturated a fat, the more stable it is when exposed to heat. If a polyunsaturated fat is exposed to heat, it can easily become damaged, or “oxidized.” Research shows that, once inside your body, damaged fats can spark “free radical cascades,” otherwise known as oxidative damage, which has been linked to numerous health conditions.
Try and avoid eating sugar by itself and foods that have been cooked at high temperatures in vegetable oils. To make your junk food less junky, simply add nutrients and change up the fats!
Here’s how to upgrade seven classic childhood junk foods.
Have you ever actually seen a blue raspberry? Probably not, because they don’t exist. And, yet, blue raspberry is one of the most popular flavors for slushies, Slurpies, and snow cones. Ditch the nutrient-poor syrups filled with weirdo colors and additives, and substitute with canned blueberry syrup. Blueberries are loaded with antioxidants and a study conducted by Oregon Health Sciences University found that the canning process increases their antioxidant content even more!
The most stable fats to cook with at high temperatures are saturated or monounsaturated fats (Read more about the healthiest oils to cook with here.) To upgrade french fries, try making your own with organic potatoes and baking them using a saturated fat like coconut oil, or monounsaturated olive oil. Try this easy recipe.
For less junky fries on the go, Chick-fil-A and Five Guys exclusively use peanut oil for frying. Not great if you have a peanut allergy, but, if not, peanut oil is ideal for high-heat frying, as it’s made up of mostly monounsaturated and saturated fats.
Corn dogs are already gluten-free, so, if you’re someone who watches their gluten, at least they’ve got that going for them. To upgrade, you can make your own using grass-fed, organic beef franks and sprouted corn tortillas. We like this recipe from The Healthy Home Economist.
If you want something closer to the original, and you can’t be bothered to make your own, try Applegate Naturals Gluten-free Beef Corn Dogs.
Like fries, you can make your own potato chips easily using organic potatoes or sweet potatoes (our favorite), and baking the slices in coconut or olive oil. But, if you’re short on time, or love for the kitchen, there are a growing number of healthier options at most grocery stores.
When buying potato chips, pay attention to the cooking oil.
Avoid chips fried in vegetable oil – corn oil, cottonseed oil, canola (rapeseed) oil, sunflower oil, safflower oil, or soybean oil. The best oils for frying are saturated or monounsaturated, so, look for chips cooked in coconut oil, olive oil, or avocado oil. We like Boulder Canyon and Jackson’s Honest brands.
Pizza is one of those foods that can be perfectly healthy or a pile o’ junk, depending on how it’s made. Pizza that’s homemade or from a restaurant that uses quality ingredients can be a great source of calcium, protein, and antioxidants (the antioxidants in tomatoes actually increase when cooked!) And, unlike some other junk foods, pizza is pretty easy to make yourself. We recommend choosing an organic pizza base and organic cheese. You can add vegetables and grilled chicken or turkey sausage to up the nutrient content even more. If you’re ordering out, go for a thin-crust style and load on the veggie toppings.
Funnel cakes are traditionally nothing more than fried dough and sugar. Mmmmm. To cut the bad fat, you can bake your cake instead of frying. You can help balance the sugar and add protein by substituting 1/3 of the flour with whey protein. This upgrade will cut carbs by over 40 grams while adding 20 grams of bioavailable protein!
Unless you’re some kind of wizard, it’s pretty hard to add nutrients to soda. You can, however, switch to a more natural brand, such as Hansen’s, which comes in your classic flavors, including root beer, ginger ale, and orange (who loves orange soda!?), and are sweetened with 100% cane sugar.
You could also try swapping your cola for kombucha, which has been called the world’s first soda. Kombucha is made by fermenting tea with a probiotic culture. The end product is a fizzy beverage that’s not only low in sugar but full of beneficial bacteria. We LOVE probiotics here at SmartyPants (that’s why we made our own), as they have been shown to support everything from healthy digestion and mood to immune function. Now that’s what we call added nutritional value!
Posted on May 22, 2017