Healthier junk food is still junk food

October 23rd, 2007
Raw junk food aisle at Green Life Groceries

Raw junk food aisle at Green Life Groceries

Americans are on a constant search for the answers to our health and weight problems. Whenever we find a new answer that seems to make sense, we think our problems are over for good, and we argue vehemently over the rightness of our newly discovered health “truths”. But even when we make a positive shift in our thinking about health and diet, we can’t seem to change our bad habits long enough to see ongoing positive effects. For every change in direction toward a healthier society, there is a line of junk food products catering to those who follow that direction. All we ever seem to do is upgrade to a more expensive brand of fat and sugar addiction.

When I first went vegan in 1995, vegan convenience foods, if you could find them, were geared toward the health-conscious more than the ethical vegan, so going vegan was a near guarantee that you’d be significantly healthier than you would have been otherwise. A tofu pup or veggie burger was a big step up from a hot dog or meat burger. Getting off of dairy typically made for a huge health improvement. These days, just going vegan alone is no longer a path to good health. Go into a natural food store and you can find cookies, donuts, pizza, pot pies, and even corndogs, all with a “vegan” label on the package. Just about anything you ever ate on the Standard American Diet is available, either in stores or online, in vegan form. This is great for animals because it’s easier than ever to go vegan. But it is very detrimental to junk food vegans who believe that the vegan diet is an automatic ticket to good health.

In 2004, when I was forced to give up gluten after discovering that I was allergic, my consumption of processed junk food was nearly eliminated out of necessity. Pasta, bread, and vegan pastries, which had dominated my diet, were no longer options. I was elated about my newfound health and energy. But then I discovered the gluten-free pastas, the huge variety of gluten-free desserts, and even the amazing gluten-free, vegan bakery in Seattle, where I lived at the time. With so many people giving up gluten, the gluten-free food market has exploded. Once again, anything you ever ate on the Standard American Diet, can now be found in gluten-free form.

Even the Atkins diet, which has thankfully lost its appeal after sending people to the hospital for high blood pressure and kidney failure, has it’s own line of Atkins junk food. When Atkins first came out, I’m sure many people felt much healthier. Having to limit carb intake to less than 20 grams per day essentially forced followers to remove processed junk food from their diets. But Americans, rather than breaking themselves of poor dietary habits, flocked instead to low carb versions of breads, pastas, and cookies, approved for the Atkins dieters.

I really thought I had this whole health and diet thing figured out when I got into raw foods. All the packaged foods were out of my life again and replaced entirely with fresh produce. I felt so amazing, physically and mentally, like I never had before. I no longer suffered even so much as a bad day. A year and a half later, I don’t feel that way anymore. In fact, sometimes, I feel quite lousy. And it wasn’t until today, when I was walking through the raw food snack aisle of the natural food store, that I put it all together.

Americans have started to make a new shift toward eating more raw food. Naturally, a market has opened up for pre-packaged, raw convenience foods. There are crackers, cookies, chocolates, and dozens of raw energy bars. There are raw recipe books with recipes for “buffalo wings” and “strawberry shortcake”. Once again, I’ve made the shift in thinking to a better way to eat and live, but I’ve been unwilling to make a genuine change in my poor lifestyle habits.

We are in a health crisis in this country, and simple answers with no substantive changes are not going to fix it. We need to go back to eating actual food that grows in nature, rather than in a laboratory. We need to make dinner from scratch. We need to learn to appreciate the taste of a tomato by itself. Or, at the very least, we need to stop tricking ourselves into believing that we can feed our junk food addictions and achieve optimal health at the same time.

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