Junk foods that are healthier than you think

By John Murphy
Published August 11, 2020

Key Takeaways

Americans love their junk food: from candy and salted snacks to pizza and ice cream. We love it all and we eat it voluminously. Almost by definition, “junk food” is that which has little nutritional value. But is all junk food really all junk?

Feast your eyes on some of the foods listed below. You might be surprised to find that your favorite “junk food” isn’t so unhealthy after all—and may even have some health benefits.


Guac rocks, and for more than just its tangy taste. Guacamole’s main ingredient, avocado, is linked with increased satiety, better diet, reduced risk of metabolic syndrome, and possibly burning more calories.

One study published in the Nutrition Journal found that people who ate half of an avocado with their lunch every day reported a 40% decreased desire to eat for the next 3 hours compared with people who didn’t.

These researchers also speculated that eating avocado can help burn more calories. “Avocados are a rich source of monounsaturated fatty acids, which are preferentially oxidized and increase thermogenesis as compared to polyunsaturated and saturated fatty acids,” they wrote. “Thus, the inclusion of avocados to a dietary meal pattern may have additional implications in weight management in an overweight population.”

Another study published in the Nutrition Journal by different researchers showed additional advantages of eating avocado. Using patient data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), the researchers found that people who regularly ate avocados had better overall diet quality and nutrient intake, and lower body weight, BMI, and waist circumference, as well as a 50% lower risk of metabolic syndrome compared with those who didn’t eat avocados. (What’s more, avocado may also protect against certain cancers.)

Mixed nuts

Nuts are full of fat and calories, so how can they possibly help you lose weight or at least keep from gaining it? First, you need to exercise portion control—about a handful (1.5 oz or 1/4 cup) is a good daily serving size.

Second, although nuts have unhealthy saturated fat, they’re also rich in healthy fats: omega-3 fatty acids, polyunsaturated fats, and monounsaturated fats. A diet high in monounsaturated fats has been shown to keep off belly fat. Besides fats, nuts are also a rich source of protein and fiber, all of which increase satiety, helping you feel fuller faster.

Plus, eating nuts regularly is linked with decreased risks for heart disease, high blood pressure, elevated cholesterol, hyperglycemia, metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes, colon cancer, and total and cause-specific mortality.


The main ingredient in hummus is chickpeas, which are mashed and mixed with tahini, olive oil, lemon juice, and spices to create this tasty dip. Served with veggies or whole-grain pita chips, hummus makes a healthy and filling snack or appetizer.

Chickpeas (also called garbanzo beans) are relatively low in calories and have a low glycemic index (GI). Their low GI means they digest more slowly and don’t cause a spike in blood sugar. Hummus is also highly nutritious and relatively low in calories. A 3.5-oz serving of hummus has only 166 calories, but 7.9 g of protein and 6 g of fiber. It’s also a good source of manganese, copper, folate, magnesium, and phosphorus.

In a recent study in The Journal of Nutrition, adults who ate hummus as an afternoon snack reduced their after-dinner desserts by 20% compared with those who ate no afternoon snack. People who snacked on hummus also consumed more vegetables and had lower blood sugar levels in the afternoon.

“Additionally, hummus snacking led to improvements in selected indices of appetite, satiety, mood, and glycemic control compared with higher-sugar snacking and/or no afternoon snacking,” the study authors wrote. “These data suggest that the daily consumption of a low-sugar snack containing hummus might be a potential strategy to improve diet quality and selected health outcomes in adults.”

Red wine

OK, so red wine isn’t exactly “junk food” (although a nice Pinot Noir pairs well with Doritos). But red wine can help burn up calories. How? Resveratrol—the celebrated antioxidant found in red wine—is able to turn the body’s excess white fat into energy-burning beige fat.

What exactly is “beige fat”? You know about white fat (which stores lipids as energy) and brown fat (which burns lipids to produce heat). Turns out, beige fat comes from white fat but can burn energy in a similar way to brown fat. Resveratrol enhances this conversion of white to beige fat, and can even prevent obesity at high rates of conversion.

Also found in blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, and apples, resveratrol is one of a number of antioxidants found in these fruits. These antioxidants enhance the oxidation of beige fat, and burn off the excess as body heat. À votre santé!


Eat dark chocolate and get thinner? Seems too good to be true, but that’s what researchers found in a study published in the journal Molecules. Dark chocolate also lowered blood pressure, lipid levels, and blood glucose, too.

For this double-blind study, the researchers randomly assigned adult participants to eat either 2 g of dark chocolate (containing 70% cocoa) or 2 g of milk chocolate per day for 6 months. By the end of the study, those who ate the dark chocolate every day had significantly reduced waist circumference. They also showed significantly lower levels of total blood cholesterol, triglycerides, and LDL cholesterol, as well as reduced blood pressure.

“Interestingly, daily flavonoid-rich [dark] chocolate intake also improves fasting plasma glucose levels and insulin resistance parameter (HOMA-IR),” the researchers added. “These effects were attributed to the proportion of flavonoids in the chocolate, which was 3-fold greater than in the milk chocolate. Together, these results suggested a potential beneficial effect as a consequence of the daily dark chocolate consumption in the lipid and glucose metabolism.”

Share with emailShare to FacebookShare to LinkedInShare to Twitter