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?