I first wrote about junk food efficiency(TM) back in 2009, when I created The Four Laws of Junk Food Efficiency. Four years Later I am proud to add: The 5th Law. (cue cool dun dun dah music)

Before I introduce the 5th Law, let’s recap the concept along with the first 4:

Underlying premise: You don’t have to eat perfectly all the time

I think there are some people who eat well all the time. They don’t crave anything, and they generally don’t snack. I am not one of those people. I suspect most of you are not those people either. In fact I think fear of having to give up all junk food is what prevents many people from starting a weight loss journey. They assume it must be an all or nothing proposition, so they wait until “the right time”. What if it isn’t all or nothing? What if you could make one change that you think “I can do that without too much drama”. What if you started right ?now? Okay, not right now: how about when you finish reading this? No wait – don’t use that as an excuse to stop reading!

Here is the key point for those of us who are not going to eat perfectly all the time: Learn to judge junk food.

Here’s a real life example:

Junk Food Efficiency Example #1: Tim Horton’s. If I went to a Tim Horton’s and felt snacky, I would order a bran or oat muffin. I wanted the chocolate doughnut, but instead I ordered the muffin because I wanted to be healthy. WRONG!

Take a look at these numbers:

Best and worst of their muffins:

  • Low fat cranberry: 280 Cal, 2 g fat, 62 g carb, 5g protein, 7 g fibre
  • Carrot whole wheat muffin: 440 Cal, 23 g fat, 52 g carb, 5g protein, 4 g fibre

Best and worst of their doughnuts:

  • Chocolate dip: 200 Cal, 6 g fat, 31 g carb, 4g protein, 1 g fibre
  • Blueberry fritter: 360 Cal, 13 g fat, 55 g carb, 6g protein, 2 g fibre

I’m not trying to suggest that doughnuts are good for you. They’re not. But guess what? Neither are the muffins. Both are junk food. But the chocolate dip doughnut is a better choice because it has fewer calories than the muffins – less than half of the “healthy” whole wheat muffin. This means that should you decide to have a snack here, at least you’re only consuming 200 calories worth of junk food instead of 440. Am I suggesting eating a chocolate dip doughnut every day is a good idea? Absolutely not. But it’s okay now and then.

On the other hand, is it ever worth having a 440 calorie muffin that you don’t really want but are having because you think it’s a healthy option?

Now that I’ve introduced this Junk Food Efficiency line of thinking, let me introduce the rules:


The Four Five Laws of Junk Food Efficiency

First Law: If I am going to eat food that’s bad for me, it better taste great.

Second Law: It shouldn’t be so bad that it undoes 3 days of good eating.

Third Law: Given a choice between two mediocre tasting junk food options, I pick the healthiest one.

Fourth Law: Less is better.

Fifth Law: Never let price sway your junk food buying decision*

390 cal for the muffin or 250 cal for the double chocolate donut. Just sayin'.

Photo credit: roboppy


Let’s look back at the example I gave above. By the First Law of Junk Food Efficiency, the muffin is dead to me. What a waste! 440 calories for whole wheat and carrot? I don’t think so. But 200 calories for chocolate dip? That I can do. That Homer guy knew of what he spoke: “…mmm…donuts…“.


More examples of applying the Laws of Junk Food Efficiency:

Junk Food Efficiency Example #2: McDonald’s

Take a look at the nutritional numbers for these two items on their menu:

  • Premium Southwest Salad with Crispy Chicken at McDonald’s: 530 Cal, 26 g fat, 49 g carb, 27g protein
  • Big Mac: 540 Cal, 29 g fat, 45 g carb, 25g protein.

Not so different!

By the First Law of Junk Food Efficiency (If I am going to eat food that’s bad for me, it better taste great), just eat the Big Mac already.

Hopefully you won’t find yourself in the position to make this choice too often, but if you do end up at McDonald’s, don’t be fooled into thinking you’re making a healthy choice by having this salad because you’re not. The Second Law of Junk Food Efficiency (It shouldn’t be so bad that it undoes 3 days of good eating) says to steer clear of the large fries (500 Cal), large milkshake (1160 cal), and don’t swap the Big Mac for the Angus Burger with Bacon and Cheese (790 cal). That would be a 2,450 calorie meal, with 329 g of carbohydrate, 91 g of fat, and wait for it – 2,930 mg of sodium! For reference, the US Food and Nutrition board recommends 2,400mg of sodium each day. If you had that as a meal, you would pretty much undo almost a week’s worth of weight loss effort. Maybe there’s a better option.


Junk Food Efficiency Example #3: The frozen food aisle

We all find ourselves in a hurry sometimes, and a quick frozen meal may be exactly what you need to stay out of the drive-through. But which one? Take a look at these three options:

a.Sun-Dried Tomato Pesto Rotini
b.Italian Sausage Cavatappi
c.Italian Meatball Mafalda

I was quick to reach for the sun-dried tomato and pesto option as this was a clear application of the Third Law of Junk Food Efficiency (Given a choice between two mediocre tasting junk food options, I pick the healthiest one). But then I looked at the nutrition label on each and quickly exchanged it for the Italian sausage meal.

What world is this we live in where the Italian sausage and cheese option is healthier than the sun-dried tomato and pesto option? I can’t say I’m too disappointed though as I do like Italian sausage.


Junk Food Efficiency Example #4: Beware of volume trickery

Lots of people apply their own version of Junk Food Efficiency when shopping, but because their model is not as well-developed as mine they buy things like baked chips and low-fat sour cream. My issue with these products is that these “healthier” versions are usually sold in larger quantities.

Look for it next time you are in the grocery store. The baked chips often only come in the mega family size packages, and the low-fat sour cream only comes in the medium and large containers. The small is reserved for the full fat versions.

If you are someone who possesses will power, then this is not a problem for you. But if you’re like me, you will hear little chip voices coming from the kitchen reminding you that there’s an open bag of chips and the ingredients for dip calling out to you incessantly until you’ve eaten them all.

And thus the Fourth Law of Junk Food Efficiency (Less is better) says to buy the junk food that comes in the smallest quantity. Don’t fool yourself into thinking that you won’t go back for thirds, fourths…chips are very convincing when they’re sitting open in the cupboard.


Junk Food Efficiency Example #5: Beware of price trickery
You decide that you will allow yourself the indulgence of a chocolate bar, so you pop over to the store. As soon as you walk in, you see the sale: One chocolate bar for $0.99 or two for $1.09. Wow – only ten cents for the second chocolate bar! Who can pass up a deal like that? YOU can pass up a “deal” like that.

First, remember the Fourth Law of Junk Food Efficiency (Less is better). That means one chocolate bar is better than two.

Your decision to just buy the one bar is also supported by the Fifth Law of Junk Food Efficiency (Never let price sway your junk food buying decision*). This one works if you change your perspective slightly. Next time you are faced with a decision like this, think of your choice this way: You are either going to spend one junk food indulgence, or you’re going to spend two. Now if you have weight loss goals, you are probably limiting the number of indulgences you get in a week. Do you really want to spend two of them right now?

Now you may have noticed I added an asterisk to the Fifth Law. This is to acknowledge that not everyone has the luxury of passing up sales. My hope is that if you’re trying to loss weight or have lost weight and want to maintain your current awesome figure, that you really try to honour this Law if at all possible. If money is tight, perhaps look at it this way: if you only buy the one chocolate bar for $0.99 instead of the two chocolate bars for $1.09, then you’ve just added ten cents to your healthy food budget.

Elsbeth Vaino, B.Sc., CSCS, is a personal trainer in Ottawa who believes that anyone can make big health changes by repeatedly making small health changes.


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