It’s nearly impossible to resist junk food. For decades, food scientists have been engineering delicious snacks that are as addictive as any drug. Barbecue potato chips, cheese puffs, sugary cereal, and pretzels dusted with heavenly honey-mustard powder are the product of an intense scientific effort that has only been rivaled by the Manhattan Project. When facing such insurmountable odds, it’s easy to give up and gorge on the tasty morsels.
Thankfully, the same food-science masterminds that have been working against you all these years have had a change of heart. They’re actually using their genius to create tasty low-fat, low-calorie snacks that won’t stick to your waistline like congealed tallow.
These snacks can be eaten—in moderate quantities—without turning you into Paul Prudhomme. But you’ll still need to exercise some restraint, because no matter how low-fat junk food is, it’s still junk food. Whatever you do, don't overindulge.
Salty junk foods
Baked potato chips
Those crafty food scientists at Frito-Lay figured out that deep-frying chips adds a lot of fat and calories. Their solution? Bake those chips in a nice, hot oven. They’ll come out crispy, but they won’t drip grease like a leaky oil tanker. Baked! Lays KC Masterpiece barbecue-flavored chips contain about 120 calories and 3 grams of fat per serving (about 11 chips). Fried barbecue Lays harbor about 150 calories and 10 grams of fat. It’s a big difference and it makes a previously off-limits food available for light snacking. And the baked Lays actually taste quite good. If you’re looking for something a bit fancier, check out Kettle Brand Bakes Potato Chips. The gourmet baked chips are good enough to be served in your favorite fancy restaurant.
Low-fat cheese puffs
The cheese puff represents a major breakthrough in snack science (and particle physics, but that’s another article). Nobody really knows what a cheese puff actually is, but we all love to gobble them down during halftime. Once again, the smarty-pants over at Frito-Lay devised a way of making low-fat, low-calorie Cheetos. They shaved about 40 calories (from 160 to 120) and about 6 grams of fat (from 10 to 4) off a serving.
If Cheetos are too scientific for you, you may want to check out Annie’s Homegrown Cheddar Bunnies. They’re not quite low-calorie and low-fat, but they’re a lot more satisfying than Cheetos. Each serving of the savory bunny-shaped crackers contains 150 calories and 7 grams of fat.
Low-cal, low-sodium pretzels
Pretzels seem healthy because they’re relatively sedate snacks. Because of this, it’s easy to gobble up too many of the tasty knots. If you’re going to snack on pretzels, look for healthy ones. Legendary actor-turned-natural food mogul Paul Newman makes (or has other people make) some delightfully healthy and tasty pretzel snacks. The Salt ‘N Pepper flavor is especially delicious, adding a much-needed zing. One serving only has 100 calories and 1 gram of fat. Or try the orgasmically delicious Snyder’s of Hanover Honey Mustard & Onion Nibblers, which have 130 calories and 3 grams of fat.
Fat and calories are a big deal, but the sodium in most pretzels can be your kryptonite, especially if you’re on a low-sodium diet. Regular salted pretzels (including Newman’s) contain about 400 mg of sodium. Unsalted pretzels are much better, as they only have about 110 mg of sodium. Of course, salt makes pretzels tasty and just a little goes a long way. Low-sodium versions—like Penn Dutch Extra Dark Reduced Sodium pretzels—taste great, but they only have about 190 mg of sodium.
Sweet junk foods
Better chocolate bars
Unfortunately, the massive food-engineering firms haven’t really figured out how to concoct a good, low-calorie chocolate bar. They’ve made a few breakthroughs, but diluted or modified chocolate is about as appealing as eating fresh potting soil.
If you must have a chocolate bar, eat only half. There are a few mass-produced bars that are better than others when it comes to fat and calories. Snickers, for instance, contains 280 calories and 14 grams of fat. Kit Kat is a little better, with 218 calories and 11 grams of fat. Plus, you can eat just one of the bars in a Kit Kat pack and halve that calorie count.
Your regular, no-frills chocolate chip cookie contains 59 calories and 3 grams of fat. Others, like Archway’s apple-filled oatmeal cookie, hold about 98 calories each. Taken in small quantities, cookies aren’t all that bad. When swallowed by the dozen, however, cookies can clog arteries and cause you to swell like a balloon. If you must indulge in cookies, reach for the smaller ones or try Newman’s Fig Newmans cookies, an all-natural alternative to overprocessed and chemically enhanced sweets. The no-fat versions have about 60 calories per cookie, and of course, no fat. They’re also super-tasty and figs contain tons of calcium—an added benefit.
The Italians developed a low-calorie, low-fat cookie thousands of years ago. Biscotti are satisfyingly sweet and crunchy, and a whole bar only contains 90 calories and 3 grams of fat. That’s a lot of bang for your buck.
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Don’t try to deny junk food, but monitor the amount you consume. Junk food has been carefully engineered to trigger all the pleasure and addiction centers of your brain, so try not to eat it every day or you’ll get addicted to it. Replace the truly egregious foods with healthier alternatives, both manufactured and natural. Remember: Carrots make excellent snacks and apples can effectively stifle a sweet tooth. So the next time you’re faced with a glimmering aisle of alluring junk food, remember that you have options.