5 ways to eliminate junk food and boost your vegetable intake

In high school, I was the queen of junk food consumption. According to my worldview, burgers and hot chips formed the foundations of the food pyramid, followed by pasta and pizza (I’m Italian) and at the very top were fruit and vegetables!

I have no idea how I managed to get through the school day with a diet that was so high in fat, sugar and salt and extremely low in fruit and vegetables.

Thankfully, my diet has dramatically changed since high school. A few years ago, I boycotted all fast food. I went cold turkey on the lot – McDonalds, Red Rooster, Hungry Jacks, Chicken Treat, KFC…..

In my experience, a healthy diet has made all the difference to my ability to think clearly and get things done. Nowadays, I eat the recommended amount of fruit (2 serves) and vegetables (5 serves) every day. But this didn’t happen overnight…it took years to get to this point.

The thing is if healthy eating habits are never modelled for you and you’re never taught in a compelling way why you should eat more fruit and vegetables, why would you say no to a piece of fried chicken and chips that costs only $3.95?

If you’re used to feeling sluggish and depressed, it’s really hard to imagine that you could feel more vibrant and alive and have razer sharp thinking by eating more beans, carrots and apples. As students many of us just want a quick, delicious and cheap fix.

The good news is that it doesn’t have to take you years to kick the junk food habit, eat healthier and start feeling great. You can fast track the process by learning from the experience of others.

For what it’s worth, here’s my experience and advice.

Go cold turkey

A professor in nutrition said “If you eat well 80% of the time, then it’s OK to have a burger and fries every now and then”. This is a great idea in theory. The problem for me was junk food wasn’t just the occasional indulgence. I was addicted to the stuff. It was what I ate 80% of the time!

I needed a radical intervention.

I read that it takes 3 months for the brain to rewire and recover from junk food addiction. It’s for this reason that I went cold turkey and refused to go to fast food outlets.

To break such an unhealthy habit, you need to get serious about what you’re putting in your mouth. Just like an alcoholic at AA decides to never touch a alcoholic drink again, you need to commit to keeping your hands off junk food for at least 3 months until your neural circuits rewire.

Cooking 101 – Let go of your “cooking baggage”

Deciding to cut out junk food and eat healthier is the first step. But then you may be presented with a new challenge – what do you eat/cook now?

Learning to cook healthy meals is like riding a bike. You can’t get good at it by reading a book or watching Master Chef. The only way is to learn by doing. And this can be really daunting for those of us with “cooking baggage”.

I’ll admit, I had “cooking baggage”. In my first high school cooking class I managed to break a bowl, burn my muffins and was scolded by the teacher. Hence, I developed a fear of kitchens and associated utensils.

I decided to overcome this irrational fear by participating in Indian and Japanese cooking courses. By observing other confident people cook good food and get some hands on experience in a non-threatening environment, I started to believe that I could improve my cooking and it didn’t have to be a stressful experience.

Keep your meals fresh and exciting

You can sometimes get yourself into a cooking rut where you find yourself cooking the same meals over and over again. If you eat too much of anything (e.g. sushi), I can almost guarantee that it won’t be long before that food begins to taste bland.

On my weekends I like to plan out my meals for the following week. I do this by taking out a few good healthy cookbooks, some post it notes, a blank sheet of paper and pens.

I spend 30 minutes to an hour going through the books placing post it notes on the recipes I want to try. On a blank sheet of paper I plan out my lunches and dinners for the next 7 days and a list of ingredients I need to buy (I have separate shopping lists for the farmers market and supermarket). I then scan each day to make sure I’m getting an adequate amount of fruit and vegetables.

If you don’t have many good cookbooks at home, try this process at a public library or log onto websites such as taste.com.au and jaimeoliver.com for meal ideas. For something a little more creative and fun, check out They Draw and Cook.

Slow down and smell the garlic in the pan

There was a time when I had the attitude “I’m too busy to waste my time cooking. I should be working instead of slaving in the kitchen!” so I would buy my lunch and dinner nearly every day.

Sure, I gained a bit more time to work on projects, but I felt terrible and I’m not sure how productive I actually was with my foggy brain.

Making the decision to slow down and spend time cooking my meals was probably one of the best things I ever did. At least I know what’s going into each dish, I feel good about saving on unnecessary packaging (e.g. plastic throwaway containers) and my brain is much sharper too.

So even though I now spend more time in the kitchen and less time doing work, I’m almost certain that I get more done in my working hours because I have better attention and feel more alert.

Get clear on what “a serve” looks like

For years I thought that consuming 5 serves of vegetables a day was mission impossible. After all, what did a serve look like? Was it a whole broccoli? Or a medium sized potato? Did it change if I cooked the vegetable?

The latest edition of The Healthy Food Guide (July 2011) contains an article called ”Ever wondered what a serve of veges actually is?” (pages 28-29). As a general rule one serve of vegetables is approximately 75g in weight. To get a better idea of what a serve of vegetables actually looks like, see below for some examples.

1 serve of vegetables is equivalent to….

  • 1 cup of roughly chopped raw broccoli, capsicum, carrot, eggplant, mushrooms, spinach or pumpkin.
  • Half a cup of cooked vegetables (any of the above).
  • Half a cup roughly chopped potato (normal or sweet).
  • Half a cup of beans (borlotti, kidney, cannellini, etc) or lentils (brown or red).
  • 1 medium carrot, 1 lebanese cucumber, 1 medium onion, 7 cherry tomatos, a quarter of a small avocado and 1 medium zucchini
  • What about fruit? Well, 1 serve of fruit is roughly 150g in weight.

    According to the “Go for 2 & 5 campaign”, 1 serve of fruit looks like…

  • 1 medium sized piece of fruit (e.g. apple)
  • 2 smaller pieces of fruit (e.g. apricots)
  • 1 cup of chopped fruit
  • 1.5 tablespoon of dried fruit (e.g. sultanas and apricots)
  • Cutting out junk food wasn’t easy at first, but it became a lot easier as I started to feel the positive benefits of healthy eating and I became more confident in my ability to cook healthy meals. If you’re committed to taking better care of yourself, then my final bit of advice would be – Keep at it.

    Somedays you will feel like you’re on a roll, eating really well for most of the day, but come the evening you may find yourself eating a bag of chips. If that happens, don’t stress. That was a minor blip. Tomorrow is another day and an opportunity to eat foods that will make you feel more alive and add more years to your life.

    If you have any ideas or strategies that have helped you to eat healthier, I would love to hear them.

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