Healthy Food vs Junk Food: Making the Swap

Healthy Food vs Junk Food: Making the Swap

Healthy Food vs Junk Food

Eating food is something we need to do for energy and sustenance. Our hunger cues help guide us, but sometimes we simply eat because we like the taste of something. Picking healthy food vs junk food can make a difference in how we feel and also influence long-term health.

It can be overwhelming knowing what to choose with so many options out there! Of course, we want to eat nourishing foods, but certain types have more benefits than others. And, some foods might look healthy when they are not providing much nutrition at all.

With this article, the goal is to clarify healthy and unhealthy food choices. We also included wallet-friendly shopping tips to help you make the swap for healthier eating.

Be sure to check out the Healthy Food vs Junk Food Chart for additional guidance.

What is healthy food?

Healthy foods provide various nutrients to promote growth and help us improve our body and/or maintain its condition. The beneficial components include fiber, healthy fats, protein, vitamins, and minerals. Hydration is also important, and the proper beverages will help meet your needs.

Healthy food


Fiber is a component of plant foods. It serves many purposes, including regulating digestion, helping to control blood sugars and cholesterol levels, and contributes to satiety at meals.

Whether you have nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD), diabetes, high cholesterol, or just want to improve your diet, adequate fiber intake matters. Whole grains, high fiber starches, whole fruits, and vegetables are healthy options. On the other hand, highly refined and processed foods which are part of the junk food category are usually very low in fiber.


Leanness is an important factor when it comes to eating protein. While the term “junk food” might make you think of snacks, certain proteins like fried chicken or high-fat breakfast meats are going to be less healthy and therefore considered junk food, too. Alternatively, lean proteins provide the highest nutritional benefit.

Lean meats include skinless poultry, pork tenderloin, and lean beef. Fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, and tuna are healthy choices, too, because they contain unsaturated fats called omega-3 fatty acids. Including more fish in the diet may reduce the risk of heart disease and provide anti-inflammatory benefits.

Plant-based proteins such as tofu and legumes are also heart-healthy options. They can increase variety in your meals and help fill you up.

Additionally, eggs provide a good source of protein as well as several vitamins and minerals.

Unsaturated fats

You should include unsaturated fats as part of a healthy diet. They help increase HDL cholesterol levels, manage our appetite, and are vital components within our bodies. Eating more fatty fish, nuts, seeds, olive oil, and avocado can provide these.

As part of an overall healthy diet, total fat content should be 20-35% of daily calorie intake. Most should come from unsaturated fats.


Water is the optimal drink for hydration, but other types of beverages can count towards overall fluid intake as well.

If you prefer fruit juice, 100% fruit juice is recommended and should not exceed eight ounces per day. Juice should be limited further to four ounces daily if you have a diagnosis of diabetes.

Unsweetened beverages, decaffeinated coffee or tea, seltzer, and flavored waters (without sugar) are alternatives to sugar-sweetened drinks. Want to make water taste better? Add various fresh fruits for more flavor.

What is considered junk food?

Junk food is generally low in nutritional content, ultimately providing extra calories, added sugars, saturated fats, and sodium. These products have an enjoyable taste, though, which is what keeps people coming back to them.

Unhealthy foods are highly processed, from take-out or fast food restaurants, and include several ingredients that are added just for flavor. Some packaged foods are healthy, but items like candy, cookies, baked goods, sugar-sweetened cereals, and juices with added sugar are ones you want to avoid.

Junk food

Short and long-term effects of too much junk food

The components in junk food are potentially damaging to our health. Excess fat, sugar, and overall calories can contribute to being overweight or obese. In turn, carrying extra weight leads to a higher risk of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and 13 types of cancer (1,2).

Even in the short term, one’s health can be affected by too much junk food consumption. For example, if you have diabetes, blood sugars can increase. Also, people with insulin resistance may see their condition worsen.

Excess saturated fat intake is linked to elevated LDL cholesterol levels. Also, if salty foods have been a part of your diet lately, blood pressure may increase due to the high salt content.

Foods filled with salt, sugar, and fat can cause a lack of energy. This feeling keeps us from doing the things we want to. Additionally, high-fat foods can be bothersome to the gut, possibly leading to digestive symptoms like gas, bloating, and diarrhea.

It is also important to note how diet can affect sleeping patterns. Research demonstrates people who consume more calories, largely from snacks and fattening foods, tend to get less sleep (3).

Added sugars

Sugar-sweetened beverages, baked goods, and candy are filled with added sugars. Whether the ingredient being used is sucrose (table sugar), brown sugar, or honey, it is still added sugar. Keeping intake to less than 10% of our daily calories is the current recommendation.

For example, if you consume 1500 calories a day, no more than 150 calories (37.5 grams) should be from added sugar.

Not a lot at all.

If eaten excessively, these foods can affect blood glucose levels and lead to weight gain.

Saturated fats and trans fats

Junk food usually contains saturated fats. These come from ingredients such as butter, lard, palm, and coconut oils. In addition, fried foods, fatty cuts of beef, pork, poultry with skin, and full-fat cheeses contribute saturated fat and ultimately more calories to a diet.

Keeping saturated fat consumption at less than 10% of your daily calories is recommended. Furthermore, consuming under 7% is even better in regards to reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease.

Trans fats come from partially hydrogenated oils. These were often added to foods like baked goods and stick margarine. A ban by the Food and Drug Administration now prohibits manufacturers from using trans fats due to their harmful effects on our health.

It is still good to check that a product does not contain this. As companies catch up to the change, some items might still be lingering with this ingredient.


Chips, pretzels, fast food. They all satisfy salt cravings. Too much salt (sodium) intake is not a good thing, though.

We need some sodium in our bodies for electrolyte balance, but excess intake can increase blood pressure (hypertension). In turn, persistent hypertension may cause damage to the kidneys.

Too much salt

The recommended sodium limit is 2,300 milligrams per day. However, depending on your medical history, this may differ. It is not unusual to have lower requirements with cardiac or renal disease.

Sugar-sweetened beverages

Beverages like soda, fruit punch, and electrolyte drinks should be limited due to added sugar content.

Gatorade and the like may help replenish fluid and minerals, but consuming these beverages regularly could increase calorie intake due to the high amount of added sugar. Plus, if you are not very active, the sodium found in them would not be beneficial.

Since added sugars do not generally provide nutritional benefits, soda and related drinks should be consumed sparingly. Whether it is plain old sugar (sucrose) or high fructose corn syrup, they add more calories to our diet and contribute to dental caries.

Is it possible to have both?

While healthy foods are the best choices, this does not mean you have to eliminate junk food completely.  If it is a special occasion, or maybe you just want to treat yourself to something you enjoy, IT’S OKAY! You do not want to have junk food on a regular basis, though.

If junk foods become more common in your diet, they will start to impact your health in a negative way. So instead, keep this type of food to a single portion, split it with someone, or have it just once in a while. By doing so, you can maintain overall healthy habits without missing out on something you like.

Eating healthy on a budget

Some studies have shown healthier food options are more expensive than less healthy products. Is it true? My answer is, it depends on the specific situation.

There are several factors that contribute to whether or not you spend more. Do you buy things already sliced, diced, and portioned out? Buy in bulk? Use coupons? These practices, among others, determine how much money is spent on healthy food.

Keep in mind, if healthier foods are consumed, it may be possible to eliminate the need for certain medications. A change in your diet means a change in overall health. This equates to spending less money when all is said and done.

Shopping tips to save money

There are multiple ways to save money in the process of purchasing healthy foods. Below are tips to give you both a healthy diet and a healthy wallet.

Shopping tips to save money

Note: An asterisk (*) indicates an affiliate link. This means if you sign up with the provided link, I earn a small commission.

  • Check out local circulars for weekly deals and coupons. Or better yet, clip coupons online or snag discounts from a mobile app.
    • Ibotta*: This app is a favorite of mine for cash back. Ibotta* is free and provides great savings and bonuses with in-store and online use. It is easy to use, and you get compensated in cash or gift cards. That means more money for shopping and less out of your pocket!
  • Buy in larger quantities or “bulk,” then portion the food out when you get home.
    • It may be more enticing to pick foods already in single-serving packaging, but this will likely increase the price. It is more cost-effective to buy a larger container and divide it up on your own.
  • Save leftovers and freeze foods.
    • Don’t want to eat the same thing anytime soon? Freeze meats, homemade sauces, fruits, and vegetables. You can even freeze bread (I recommend slicing it first)!
  • Utilize services such as Imperfect Foods or Misfits Market for affordable options that get delivered right to your door.

Healthy Food vs Junk Food Chart

Check out the list of junk foods in the left column, and swap it out for a healthier alternative from the right column.

Junk FoodHealthy Food
White bread or similar refined bread productsWhole wheat, whole grain, rye bread
Potato chipsRoasted chickpeas, air-popped popcorn,
dried apple chips
PretzelsCarrot or celery sticks and hummus
Store-bought trail mix with candyHomemade trail mix (unsalted nuts, dried fruit,
unsweetened cereal)
Sweetened cold cerealHigh fiber cereal (with low amounts of or no
added sugars) and fresh fruit
Flavored oatmealRolled oats or plain instant oatmeal with
cinnamon, drop of vanilla, pecans
Granola bars with little/no fiberGranola/protein bars with at least 3 grams
of fiber
CandySmall piece of dark chocolate with dried fruit
Fruit juice blend with added sugar100% fruit juice
Fast food burger or a crispy chicken sandwich
with fries
Homemade lean beef burger or grilled chicken
sandwich with baked sweet potato wedges
SodaWater or seltzer with fresh fruit

Conclusion – Healthy Food vs Junk Food

By now, it is clear that healthy food choices give us the proper nutrition and fuel our bodies need on a daily basis. Still, there is always time for a treat. Having a less healthy option doesn’t have to be off-limits, and you shouldn’t feel bad about it.

Pick healthy foods the majority of the time to ensure you get the nutrients you need and avoid excess empty calories. Try making one food swap per week so that you do not get overwhelmed. Before you know it, you will have added a slew of new foods in the rotation.

Being a smart shopper is important when purchasing healthier foods. Keep the tips provided in mind to get the most value out of grocery shopping. Eventually, it will become second nature to grab healthy food first instead of junk food.

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