Healthy Junk Food Alternatives for Home and On the Go

By Val Silver

junk food hacks, healthy junk food alternatives and upgrades

Healthy junk food alternatives and upgrades are an important part of a good diet whether you are at home, at work, or on the go. No matter where you are or how tight your schedule, you can still have treats you love without sabotaging your health. You may even find you enjoy some of these snacks more than your old standbys.

Putting the words healthy junk food together is an obvious oxymoron. No junk food is good for you. Despite its lack of nutritional value, eating over-processed "food" robs nutrients in your body for digestion. Within a short time of the almost inevitable insulin spike caused by the influx of sugar, blood sugar levels rise, then plummet, making you hungry again - a sure recipe for overeating and weight gain.

No, you do not have to give up all your favorite snacks and party foods to have a diet that is healthy overall.  Sticking to a limit of 10% of incoming calories is a fair suggestion offered by nutritional experts. To stretch that limit while still enjoying the tasty foods you like, junk food alternatives and upgrades can taste decadent and provide added nutrition to your diet. You may even realize you prefer some of them. 

Junk Food Facts

  • Manufacturers spend a great deal of money making processed foods irresistible. They use science to hook us on newfangled foods engineered to excite our taste buds and our brain chemicals. Some of them actually contain ingredients that stimulate the heroin centers in your brain. You crave them and eat them to excess. No wonder you struggle. It's not your fault.
  • Junk food starts as real food before being morphed into highly processed, nutritionally deficient products containing appetite stimulating fats, sugar, high fructose corn syrup, chemicals, and/or artificial sweeteners. They may contain rancid oils, synthetic vitamins, and GMOs. 
  • You do not have to give up fake food entirely, nor is it realistic to expect that. A good rule of thumb is to limit unhealthy food choices to 10-20% of your total daily food and drink intake overall. Even this can be a lofty goal. All it takes is one 300-plus calorie bleached flour and sugar filled doughnut fried in super-heated oil to fill your quota. 
  • Avoid foods you are sensitive to. For you, those are unhealthy even if they are good for someone else.

The good news is that including healthy junk food alternatives in as part of your healthy food plan is not as difficult as you might think. 

Junk Food Ingredients to Limit 

Remember these junk food facts when shopping. Watch for the following words on labels. Limit or avoid food containing these ingredients, especially when they are among the first five ingredients.

  • Enriched usually means grains are stripped of their germ, bran and natural nutrients before being enriched with a few cents worth of vitamins and fiber. Look for the  whole grain instead. 
  • A word ending in "-ose" means sugars and high fructose corn syrup. Look under carbohydrates for sugars per serving. Six grams of sugar equals one teaspoon.  
  • Artificial sweeteners contain health damaging chemicals and can spike insulin levels which increase hunger and cravings and store sugar as fat. Aspartame, sucralose and acesulfame K are three top chemical sweeteners with health harming effects.  Choose a little organic maple syrup, honey or stevia instead. Small amounts of sugar alcohols such as erythritol and xylitol are fine.  If you overdo on these your digestive tract will let you know with bloating, cramps and gas. Never feed anything with xylitol to dogs because even a little can kill them. Sugar from sugar beets is GMO. Cane sugar is not. If the label just says sugar, assume it's from sugar beets.
  • Hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated trans fats clog arteries and cause inflammation.  Manufacturers can claim zero grams per serving even if trans fats are present. Check ingredients and serving size. Trace amounts are okay. 
  • Deep fried translates into cooking in super heated oils that damages proteins and fat. Pay attention to the smell of your fried foods and purchased oils. Is the smell fresh or rancid? Choose 'cold-pressed' or 'expeller-pressed' coconut, walnut, avocado or olive oil whenever possible. Avoid soy, corn, cottonseed, and canola oils which are most likely GMO. Some manufacturers sell these oils as olive oil. Olive oil is green. 
  • You probably will not see GMO on the label if manufacturers can help it. Do not be fooled by meaningless 'natural' labels. Read the ingredients and stickers on fruits and vegetables. Rice, soybeans, canola oil, sugar beets, papayas, zucchini, yellow squash, corn are often genetically modified. Sweet corn and popcorn are not GMO.  Look for an optional 5 digit number beginning with 8 means GMO. A 4 digit number means conventional produce. A 5 digit number starting with 9 means organic. Look for the GMO-free verified seal and certified organic labels to be sure you are avoiding GMO food.

healthy junk food alternatives and upgrades, boy enjoying a cupcakeMy grandson enjoying a cupcake

5 Delicious Quick Treats for Home and On the Go

Enjoy these delicious healthy junk food alternatives when you are on the go, at work, or at home. You can find them in convenient small packages to keep on hand. Convenient single-serving bags  can be stored within easy reach. The following tips, treats and swaps will help you improve your diet without giving up your favorite snacks. 

  1. Seaweed snacks are full of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. These low-cal crunchy sheets of goodness come in several flavors and are packaged for on the go snacking.
  2. Baked green peas are a crisp and tasty source of vitamins A, K and C, manganese, fiber, thiamin, and folate. Go for small bags if you find them so addicting that you want to eat a large bagful in one sitting. 
  3. Dark chocolate encourages the release of feel-good neurotransmitters. A 1-1/2 ounce serving provides generous amounts of antioxidants, fiber, copper, magnesium, iron and other minerals. Aim for at least 60% dark chocolate to minimize sugar and maximize health benefits.
  4. Dried fruit and vegetable chips preserve nutrients and sweetness without the worry of them over-ripening, going bad, or having to deal with peels and pits. Expand your horizons to include small servings of a variety of fruit and veggies- banana, carrot, coconut, pineapple, raisins-to provide a range of nutrients. 
  5. Nuts and seeds are satisfying snacks that can help you feel full for hours thanks to natural fat, protein and nutrients. Mix nuts with dried fruit and dark chocolate chips for a yummy trail mix treat.

Healthy Junk Food Upgrades and Swaps

Do you enjoy making homemade snacks and desserts (or are lucky enough to know someone who does)?  When you bake and cook it is easy to swap ingredients and make healthy junk food upgrades.

Easy healthy cooking upgrades and swaps for treats

  • Use a whole grain flour for some or all of the white flour in breads, cookies, and pancakes.
  • Mix in real fruit and berries or add as a topper.
  • Substitute healthy sweeteners, such as stevia or monk fruit, for sugar.
  • Substitute all or part of the wheat flour in a recipe with almond and/or coconut flour. You can find a lot of "keto recipes" on Youtube that feature bread, muffin, pancake, and cookie recipes made with these flours. 
  • Make boxed brownie mix healthier with the following additions and substitutions. Add one can of pureed black beans in lieu of half the oil. Use melted coconut oil as your oil. Sprinkle a generous helping of pecans or walnuts on top or mix into the batter. Another option is to use the full amount of coconut oil and add a few tablespoons of ground flax seeds, chia seeds, and/or hemp seeds to the batter. For convenience, make a double batch and freeze the extras. 

My favorite pumpkin cookies are nutritious powerhouses filled with sunflower seeds, raisins, chocolate chips and other wholesome ingredients. They are so healthy that I sometimes eat them for breakfast.

Check out these recipes for totally guilt-free candies and yummy good for you desserts . (affiliate link)

You and your family may enjoy making these simple, delicious treats together. Who knows? You may even like them better than their over-processed, unhealthy counterparts. 

Fast food upgrades and swaps for meals

Desserts and snacks are not the only foods that benefit from healthy junk food alternatives and upgrades. 

  • Add a tablespoon of chia seeds and/or ground flax meal to oatmeal or porridge.
  • If you use bottled salad dressings, pour off the soy and canola oil on top and replace with olive, avocado or walnut oil. Better yet, follow a recipe and make your own. Easy.
  • Make boxed pancake mix healthier by adding in a scoop of quality plant protein powder and ground flax or chia seeds. Add in lots of berries and top with butter and real maple syrup. Better yet, make your own mix with buckwheat flour and coconut or almond flour. Very filling and tasty.
  • Add a tablespoon of kelp, nori or dulse flakes to tomato sauce and seasoning packets that come with boxed meals. Sneak in a tablespoon of ground flax or chia, too. Pureed beans sneak well into creamy sauces. Adjust the amounts based on how much you are making and the flavor. Unless you overdo it, no one will ever know. 
  • Swap deep fried french fries with baked sweet potato fries coated with a little olive oil and seasoned with unrefined salt and spices. Pureed cauliflower is a tasty substitute for mashed potatoes or as a gravy over meat or rice. Find a recipe you like and give it a try. 
  • Ditch the white bread and purchase organic whole grain bread instead. For wraps and tortillas, use low carb, fiber-rich alternatives. 
  • Use cauliflower. Cauliflower everything is trending as a substitute for pizza crust, pasta, rice, and more. This low-calorie, low-carbohydrate, nutritious cruciferous vegetable aids detoxification and has anti-cancer benefits. It also mixes well with mashed potatoes.

Easy healthy junk food alternatives and upgrades

Ready-made junk food and less-than-healthy food can be made healthier with upgrades and swaps. 

  • Enjoy frozen yogurt with live cultures instead of ice cream. 
  • Plain Greek yogurt topped with your favorite fruit or berries stirred in is a great substitute for sugar laden yogurt cups. Either fresh or frozen fruit is good. Sprinkle in stevia for added sweetness.
  • Got the munchies? Enjoy stove top or air popped popcorn with a little butter, coconut oil, and  unrefined salt instead of potato chips or pre-packaged microwaved popcorn. Fruit slices, cut melon, carrot sticks and celery with hummus, nut butter or yogurt dip make yummy snacks. Children and adults will happily gobble them up as long as they are cut up and ready to eat. 
  • Choose a healthy trail mix made with nuts, dark chocolate chips, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, unsweetened coconut flakes, and/or bits of dried fruit. You can find blends like this or make your own. 
  • Instead of greasy potato chips, opt for kale chips or bean chips. Amazingly good.
  • Swap milk chocolate for dark chocolate. 70% dark chocolate tastes good. Above that is an acquired taste. For baking, use the 60% dark chips. 
  • Buy healthy snack and meal bars instead of candy bars and sugar-laden granola bars. Find bars with real food ingredients, low sugar, at least a few grams of fiber and healthful ingredients. Some include superfoods such as nuts, seeds and real fruit.

When and if you do choose to eat junky junk food, don't feel guilty. The added stress makes them even worse for you. Bless what you eat. Sometimes 'soul food' is just what the doctor ordered. Stick to the 80-20 rule. 80% healthy food that is!

Note: If you have a serious health condition, it may really be to your benefit to eliminate bad foods from your diet all together. Stick with healthy junk food alternatives when you want a treat. Make every morsel count toward maintaining and rebuilding your health. Take the words of Hippocrates to heart.

"Let food be your medicine and medicine be your food..."

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Visit the Healthy Living Guide for tips about diet, sleep, exercise and more.

Healthy Junk Food Alternatives page updated 03/2020

For Educational Purposes Only. This information has not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. It is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease or medical condition. Please consult with your health provider before using natural remedies and/or complementary therapies if you are pregnant, nursing, or you are being treated for a medical condition. Be aware that certain herbs and supplements interact with medications.

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