Confessions of a Junk-Food Junkie: 6 Tricks to Kick the Habit

woman eating junk food by the pool

True story: I was a fat kid, peaking at about 225 pounds by age 18. In my more socially awkward moments—and there were many—junk food was my best friend. Or so I thought. When my algebra class crush gave me the “just friends” speech or a so-called buddy would jokingly call me “Fatso,” nothing said acceptance like a pint of Rocky Road and half a package of Nutter Butters.

Today, I weigh about 160 and I’d love to tell you those urges are behind me. Sadly, they’re not. On bad days, it takes a concerted effort not to pig out. My name is Denis Faye and I am a junk-food junkie.

Given our nation’s exploding obesity and diabetes rates, you very well could be too. The good news is that with a few tricks and a little hard work, together we can keep those sugar monkeys on our backs under control.

Why we’re hooked on garbage

It’s safe to say that junk-food addiction is a very real thing. The first place to look for proof is the ever-mounting pile of scientific evidence, including a study out of Sweden showing that the hormone ghrelin, which activates the brain’s reward system and increases appetite, reacts similarly to sugar and alcohol.

Then there are the increasingly decadent foods we have 24-hour access to. In his book The End of Overeating, Dr. David Kessler theorizes that manufacturers have, over the years, engineered the balance of fat, sugar, and salt in junk food to the point of making it irresistible. He refers to our gluttonous response to this crackified food as “conditioned hypereating.”

Most of this current thinking revolves around physiological factors, such as the fact our brains are hardwired to seek out highly caloric foods as a “feast or famine” instinct left over from caveman days. Unfortunately, human beings are slightly more complex than our primitive ancestors. By adulthood, most of us are a hodgepodge of neuroses and psychoses for whom a Twinkie has become a security blanket, so this urge to splurge will never completely vanish. Sure, you can retrain your body to crave healthy food, but your psyche may never stop seeking validation, Hostess style.

How to keep that addiction under control

Luckily, a well-trained body goes a long way toward helping a slightly off-kilter mind. For example, if I were to force down that aforementioned slice of Sara Lee heaven, I’d get physically sick. After years of clean eating, my digestive system has lost its ability to handle the toxic effects of a sugar hit like that, not to mention the preservatives and additives. Thanks in part to these newfound “limitations,” today I can walk away from the cake or limit myself to one or two bites — but that’s taken years of training.

But it wasn’t easy. If you’re going to break a sugar habit, it’s going to take time, patience, and willpower. But take it from a guy who used to work his way through an entire box of Cap’n Crunch for breakfast: If I can do it, so can you. Here’s where to start.

1. Clean all the junk food out of your home.
Think of the stereotypical image of the woman getting dumped by her boyfriend and climbing into bed with a tub of Ben & Jerry’s. If that tub wasn’t in the freezer to begin with, odds are that our protagonist would have instead settled for a soak in the tub.

There’s also “unconscious eating” to worry about — when you just grab a bag of fried carbs while you’re sitting in front of the tube and stuff your face for no reason. If you don’t have access to the junk, the only bag you’ll be able to grab will be filled with baby carrots. If someone brings some junk over for a dinner party, enjoy it with them and dump the rest when they leave.

2. Eat 80% clean.
Relax with that other 20%. Just because your kitchen cupboard no longer looks like a movie theater concession stand doesn’t mean you can’t live it up sometimes. If most of your diet is super tight, you’re doing great, so cut yourself some slack. When I made my first big push to clean up my diet, Friday was Cookie Day. I ate like a saint 6 days a week, but every Friday I had a giant chocolate chip cookie and a latte. Knowing I had Cookie Day to look forward to made all the celery on the other days much more palatable.

3. Make a comforting ritual out of eating healthy.

The fact that Cookie Day was a ritual was also quite helpful. Unhealthy eating is often ritualistic — something comfortable and constant that you can depend on. Not only can you have your own Cookie Day — a conscious, controlled, weekly moment of indulgence — but you can replace unhealthy rituals with healthy ones.

For example, I used to drink at least two servings of alcohol a night. I’d have wine or beer with dinner and then another one when I was sitting around reading or watching TV. When I realized that second drink wasn’t doing me any favors, I replaced it with a cup of herbal tea. The 21-days-to-form-a-habit thing has no scientific backing, but eventually a behavior pattern will set in. In my case, after three weeks I stopped missing that second beer. Then, after a few more weeks I really started craving the calming, peaceful feeling my cup o’ chamomile gave me. Now it’s a nightly ritual.

4. Carry healthy foods with you at all times.

If you carry a purse or a backpack, throw an apple or some raw nuts in there. In this Fast Food Nation, it’s pretty easy to find yourself in situations where you’re hungry and, shucks, you just have no choice but to buy a donut because that’s the only thing you have access to. You don’t have that excuse if there’s a snack in your pack. Here are a few to consider:

  • Fresh fruit (Apples, plums, pears, and stone fruit travel well!)
  • Dried fruit (It all travels well!)
  • Raw nuts
  • Whole-grain crackers
  • A Shakeology packet

5. Discover new, yummy fruits and veggies.

There’s a lot of weird, healthy food out there. Sometimes, we avoid fresh produce because we’re either bored of the same old oranges or there’s a stigma associated with particular produce. Dad just forced you to eat asparagus one too many times. If this is a problem for you, buy fruits and veggies you don’t recognize. If you don’t know how to prepare it, do an internet search for “(produce name) + recipe.” You might stumble on a new flavor that completely blows your mind.

For me, that magic fruit was the cherimoya, or “custard apple.” They’re green and scaly on the outside, thick, white, and creamy on the inside, with a rich taste as sweet and satisfying as the richest sorbet. My mouth is watering just writing about them.

6. Binge on healthy foods.
I’m probably the only person who will ever give you this advice since it’s a wee bit questionable. Every once in the while, something emotional triggers me and I need to eat junk. Someday I might completely conquer this urge, but not yet. When I feel this happening, I hit the fridge and “pre-binge” on healthy foods, mainly raw veggies. Sooner or later, the ice cream or chips come out, but by that point, I’m so full of broccoli or spinach that I’m not physically capable of doing too much damage. Dysfunctional? Maybe, but a vast improvement over the alternative.

You might be one of those lucky souls who just decided to walk away from the candy counter and never looked back. Good for you. I’m not one of those people. Eating right is much easier than it was 20 years ago, but it’s still a process. That said, the rewards are innumerable, so why don’t you set down the pudding pop, grab a peach, and join me?

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29 Comments

  1. Aynya said:

    Thank you, loved the article! I have a question though for me bf who is having weight problems. He hates nuts, and most fruits, I’ve tried to encourage minor changes such as losing Monster drinks in favor of Vitamin Waters high in B12, and eating a salad first to fill his belly some before getting into the pizza. Some are helping, but I would like to find snacks that he can keep on hand without lugging a cooler around. I work overnight and can’t be there to encourage him making the right decisions during the day, so I try to keep some healthier options on hand for him. We are on a tight budget, and so far, the only thing I’ve found that he can stand is Cliff bars, which are a good start, but I’d like to find some fresher options too. I understand that retraining the tastebuds takes time, but I wondered if you had suggestions for other snacks that he might enjoy that don’t need refrigeration?

    • lwright311 said:

      I keep a big bowl of apples and oranges sitting on my kitchen table. It is the only fruits my kids like and they are more likely to eat it if its the first thing they see. I also slit a big bag of pretzels, plantain chips, crackers, etc into individual baggies to help control portion size.

  2. Candice_bf said:

    “Sooner or later, the ice cream or chips come out, but by that point, I’m so full of broccoli or spinach that I’m not physically capable of doing too much damage. Dysfunctional? Maybe, but a vast improvement over the alternative.” Lol. Love this!

  3. Brianne Toma said:

    When I was pregnant, I tried booking my honeymoon that I never got to have. The cruiseline said I was too far along and regretted to decline me. I was so devestated I drove to the store in my hormonal mess and went straight to the salad aisle. Not the candy or ice cream aisle. The greens. I bought an entire veggie tray, went home, and cried while I stuffed my face full of celery and carrots. I must have been really upset if I didn’t choose ice cream. o_o

    • Casey Schade Fitness said:

      Aww that is no fair! You must have been really upset I know I would have been! Awesome choice with the veggies! No better way then to just vegg out!!

  4. Andrea said:

    Really enjoyed your article. Very straightforward and honest. I’m not a perfect eater either, and I really like the idea of having one day for a treat. That would give a great incentive, and Friday is a wonderful day to pick. I have watched carefully what I eat for years, and even though I am not overweight or have blood pressure problems, the junk food especially chocolate can be a downfall for me. Thank you for such a nice article.

  5. Nouri said:

    Thanks for the great article. if I may add some tricks the addicts will find ’em useful.
    – Replace the cookies and cakes and what’s akin with sweet taste fruits like dates which can be eaten with milk and coffee and tea, and they taste SO GOOD.
    – If you had urge to eat junk foods it’d be better eating small amount after a meal than eating them while you still hungry.

  6. jtanabe87 said:

    Hi Denis! This is my first article that I’m reading on this website. I must say, your writing made me laugh, smile, and think of myself. 🙂 It’s very nice to read your story and tips to fight the urge of eating junk food. Tonight I literally walked into my kitchen about 4-5 times thinking about snacking… but, I didn’t!!! It was very very very DIFFICULT to do!! I like your tip about binging on healthy foods first. 🙂
    Anyway, thank you for your thoughtful article. 🙂

  7. Byrona Tweedy said:

    Hey Denis! I have been following you, or “The Real Nutrition Nerd”, on Facebook for a while, but I missed this post until today. It’s awesome inspiration for someone struggling to return to the healthy lifestyle after a 5 month sabbatical while travelling (maintaining proper nutrition while backpacking is next to impossible). It’s sad to read that the cravings may never go away, but it is comforting reading that I’m not alone. 🙂
    Cheers for the pleasant read!

  8. Tasha Tovar said:

    This was a great article! Thank you! I also have learned to develop other habits to replace the binges-for instance include some kind of activity, like a certain game (or for ladies a spa treatment or facial). Include something that has been proven to increase endorphins. Eventually, you can ease back on the eating and look to other things to process your feelings. When I lived on the ranch, I would actually go out and move some hay bales around or chop wood. It was exercise that included fresh air. Now I live in an apartment so I use the facial idea and yoga when something happens. Most of my issues are with boredom or simple stress. I’m learning to love jogging/running, which is the next step for dealing with bad days/moments.

  9. Jackie Garrity said:

    Hey Denis, thank you so much for this article! So much of what I read describes ME. 🙁 BUT….I just joined beachbody and am really looking forward to making some big changes in the way I eat. I truly appreciate reading the comments of others who understand this struggle. Here’s to looking forward to many more articles like this one! 😀

  10. Kimmy said:

    The cookie comment helped. I’m probably 90%, and at the end of the work week I feel a small amount of junk helps. I work a lot so I cut myself some slack Thus and Friday when I’m getting tired. But it’s carbs not sugar.

  11. Eric said:

    My name is Eric, and I too am a recovering Junk Foodie – got clean in 2006 and lasted until 2012, relapsed and got clean again in 2013 (thanks to beachbody) – hang in there people : ) — Also, “Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us” is another good source of info.

  12. lwright311 said:

    I get picked on by my friends because I always have my “snack bag” with fruit and individual servings of healthy snacks like nuts and pretzels. However, I have three kids that are invvolved in sports and there are no healthy options at the concession stands. I have become proud of my “snack bag” instead of self concious. Plus, all the kids love me because I share mt snacks. Its a shame the adults are the ones who try to make me feel self concious.

    • Casey Schade Fitness said:

      I am the same way! I have tried to always have snacks anywhere I go with my little! Then you neer have to settle for Junk!

  13. Josh Bartley said:

    I can totally relate to this. The picture on the left is from 10 years ago. I was entering my 20’s 215 pounds, high anxiety, depressed and junk food was my friend. It’s crazy to think even after 10 years how those habits can sneak up sometimes. I love your last tip with binging on healhty items and that’s what I personally aim for as well. Hit up the veggies and sometimes that does satisfy the cravings. Social events are tough but the one tip I’m trying to allow myself is just focus on the 2 items like say a wedding event dinner plates are always tough so I try to focus on having like a drink and the dinner and not beat myself up over it and if I do have more than 2 items to get in that mindset that “Josh, you’re not 215 pounds anymore, make your next move a better move, drink water, forgive what happened and bounce back.” The picture on the right was yesterday, entering my first workout into my 30’s. Those habits we break they will always be in the back of my mind and it takes a lot of discipline and power. Love this post! Also the other tip of keeping veggies and fruits mixed up. I love mixing things up, something to look forward to with keeping food interesting. Love the post!

  14. Kristen Swartz said:

    I’m so happy you mentioned cherimoya. I’m currently traveling through Peru and just found the magic fruit. It is amazing! Just as sweet and decadent as any dessert I’ve ever had.

  15. franch3skalee said:

    OMG!! I love this article!! I’m literally trying to break the habit of wanting to eat something sweet, right after every meal. I am getting myself back to healthy habits, like I was a year ago, and it’s becoming harder than ever, but now I’m just reading every article I can possibly read, to fulfill my mind with healthyness in every way. Because when you want something, you work hard until you get it, and it’s exactly what I’m going to do!

  16. Lilaries06 said:

    Thanks for this article, as I get back on the grind during the Holidays. It is always hard from Halloween to New Year’s to stick with the healthy stuff. But as I grow older these pounds they are putting on me just aren’t coming back off as fast as they go on. So I am taking my life back and getting back on track. This article has given me some tools to use to fight the urge to binge on junk just because it is there. So thank you for sharing. The battle may never be over but I will fight the good fight.

  17. Stacie Roth said:

    Love this, I’m finding that the more and more I look at my diet, this is me. Especially since I started working a less physically demanding job.

  18. miranda Marchand said:

    Thank you for this. I needed this. It’s not easy changing eating habits, so these little tips help.

  19. Terry Lee Diemert said:

    Thank you so much for your story. I am also a junk food junkie. I have to break myself of this and I will use the steps that you have taken. Makes perfect sense to me. If I can quit smoking and drinking coffee I can quit junk food. Thank you again, this really helps knowing that there are others out there with this very problem.

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