You talk about a health and fitness regime and a typical list of foods are conjured up in your imagination: lean chicken with salad; kale and quinoa; all sorts of odd coloured health shakes. There is a degree of truth to this: these types of meals should be front and centre in your diet if you’re looking to maximise your health and athleticism.
However, junk food has its place as well.
It’s not healthy, but that’s not the point. You don’t eat a burger or order pizza to physically nourish yourself- you do so to nourish something else. Call it soul food, comfort food… whatever. There is more to life than clean living, and you need to take in something that is naughty but nice every so often.
In this article, I’ll outline two ways in which you can incorporate junk food into a healthy, balanced diet.
What counts as junk food?
The term ‘junk food’ is obviously pejorative: few good things have ever been called ‘junk.’ In essence, we use it to talk about foods that contain a lot of calories whilst giving you little of nutritional value in return. Most of the energy they provide will be from sugar and/or unhealthy fats, with little coming by way of fibre, protein or micronutrients like vitamins or minerals.
Alternatively, the macro nutritional values of junk food can be pretty sound (think of the protein provided by a quarter-pound burger) whilst being heavily processed and containing many artificial flavourings and preservatives or being loaded with excess salt or fat.
Junk food’s nutritional status
Junk food obviously has a bit of a rogue status. Public health campaigns have demonised it in recent years, with punitive taxes on sugar and clear labelling requirements for nutritional values. In the public imagination, junk food (and fast food, though they are not completely synonymous) is linked with health conditions such as obesity and diabetes. This is all justifiable: it should be demonised, and it is linked with ill health and the current obesity epidemic.
However, this doesn’t mean that it has no place in your diet. If you can make room for the nutrient load in your macro requirements, there is little to stop you from enjoying junk food.
So how do you reconcile junk food with keeping your diet clean?
If It Fits Your Macros (IIFYM) is one of the most popular flexible dieting models doing the circuit at the moment, and with good reason. As I’ve written before, it allows you to meet your weight goals without being overly draconian. There should be no feelings of restriction with IIFYM, and it should leave you feeling sated in both body and soul.
IIFYM is one of the most forgiving, easy to follow dietary protocols. It takes a little while to get used to it as you learn to count calories and macronutrients in various foods, and it will take constant vigilance as you record these numbers.
However, once you’re up and running, you get the benefit of meeting your goals whilst being able to enjoy the foods you love. No kale smoothies if you don’t want them: as long as you can make room for MacDonald’s in your intake, feel free to go for it.
IIFYM and junk food
All foods are permitted on the IIFYM diet. Pizza, burgers and fries are all fair game, and you can allot yourself some of your carb allowance in the form of simple sugars if you have a sweet tooth.
Obviously, this makes IIFYM ripe for abuse. You can hit your macros without satisfying your micronutrient needs, often overdoing it on sodium whilst getting little by way of fibre, vitamins and other minerals. But if you plan correctly, and eat a healthy, broad range of foods, then you can happily tuck in to a few servings of junk food here and there.
A typical week might consist of thirty odd meals of lean meats, eggs and protein shakes; green veg and rice; oatmeal, nuts and low GI fruits; healthful spices like chilli and cinnamon… and a pizza, a burger with fries, and a couple of high sugar desserts, all spaced out evenly.
Keep it varied and balanced, and IIFYM will work for you.
Aside from IIFYM, junk food has a right and proper place as a strategic ‘cheat.’ This is when you don’t make room for it: it takes you over your allotted caloric intake, whilst giving you little that is nutritionally useful.
However, you will keep these cheats rare. If you eat five meals per day of varying size (breakfast, lunch, dinner and a couple of snacks) then you will be eating about 35 per week. If you make one or two of these 35 meals a cheat, that should be OK. Enjoy your Friday night burger or go for a decent Sunday roast. Eat completely clean the rest of the time and you should be OK.
Cheating can actually also have a positive result. Your body gets used to a caloric deficit, or to maintenance, and will adjust its basal metabolic rate (BMR) accordingly, at least to a small degree. Treating it to a larger binge of calories every so often may bring your BMR up.
How I use junk food
I’m fairly ambivalent about fast food, burgers and fries. I have a bit of a sweet tooth, but I can ignore this easily enough. For me, pizza is my Achilles’ Heel: I could eat it all day, every day.
Rather than gorging on it and ballooning up to 200kg, however, I act strategically, as laid out above. I like to make use of cheat meals. Therefore, I eat clean for the majority of my diet. I go for a moderate daily fast to control my insulin levels, I take in adequate healthy protein, fat, carbs and fibre, from varied, good quality sources. I supplement well, train hard, eat clean… the usual.
Then, every couple of weeks, I order a large pizza either from Dominos or an Italian place on the corner of my street, and I demolish it. The whole lot, 2000+ calories of greasy fat and heavy, bready carbs.
It’s a treat and it keeps me going. But it’s more than this: I don’t just eat it strategically, I train strategically around it. My heaviest workload in the gym is deadlift day. If I’ve hit heavy deadlifts, rack pulls, or any variations thereof, I have a near insatiable appetite afterwards. So, if I’m going to eat a massive pizza, I might do it the evening after such a workout.
Alternatively, I could put that high-calorie content to good use. Rather than eating it after a heavy lifting day, I might eat my pizza the day before one. I use it to stock up on glycogen, fuelling my muscles. Have a pizza for dinner, go into the gym the next morning and hit it hard: if you’re going to cheat, at least make the most of it.
I’ve given you two of the most popular ways of including junk food in your diet: cheating and IIFYM. Of course, a combination of the two usually arises, where you make room for the cheat and then have at it.
The most important thing is a balance. I’ve said it multiple times already, and I’ll say it again: eat clean for the majority of your meals, then fall off the wagon in a controlled way, enjoying yourself and still making the progress you want.
Also, it’s worth noting that health and fitness is not the be-all or end-all. If your friend is having a birthday party with cake and booze, go. Enjoy yourself and help them to enjoy themselves. If there’s a special occasion and somebody’s laying on a load of less-than-ideal food, eat it: be happy and grateful. Live your life.
But do it well, follow the above advice, and reconcile pleasure with your own goals.