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Confessions Of A Junk Food Junkie

How you can curb cravings and regain control over your health.

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Woman eating junk food on bright studio background
Catherine Losing/Trunk Archive
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In the early days of the pandemic, there was a running joke that the “19” in COVID-19 referred to the number of extra pounds many of us stockpiled like rolls of toilet paper. At the time no one was overly disturbed by this fact because we thought the weight would simply drop off when life got back to normal, which we assumed would be before long. How sadly mistaken we were. A poll by the American Psychological Association in February 2021 found that 42 percent of U.S. adults put on weight during the pandemic.

By now that weight gain has crept upward of 19 to an average of 29 pounds, and the joke — as Morrissey famously sang — isn’t funny anymore. When online shopping for pants recently, I resigned myself to buying a size up from my usual. Gaining weight isn’t a tragedy. However, as a perimenopausal woman, it is cause for concern, given those extra pounds stubbornly stick to my middle, increasing my risk for conditions like breast cancer, type 2 diabetes, dementia and asthma. While some women have taken advantage of the lockdown to up their fitness game with Peloton and virtual workouts, the rest of us have made bingeing on Netflix and Doritos a sport. My husband doesn’t snack — ever. I often wonder why I feel the urge to stuff my piehole full of sugar and sodium and saturated fats while my partner does not?

At first glance the answer seems glaringly obvious: Junk food brings me joy. At least I thought it did. In truth, the second my fingers scrape the bottom of the chip bag — which is like hitting rock bottom of the world itself — a switch immediately flicks. The self-loathing sets in, and along with it the cruel realization that I WASN’T EVEN HUNGRY TO BEGIN WITH.

So often COVID-19 has driven me to eat my feelings: the sickeningly sweet flavor of fear, the salty sting of sadness, the tangy taste of boredom and uncertainty. No one knows how long this pandemic will last (already it has lasted so much longer than any of us anticipated) or what we will lose in the process. So, we take control the only way we know how. We reach for the top shelf until we find the bag that crunches and crinkles. On cue our mouths flood with saliva like Pavlov’s pooches. So much for evolution! Desperate times call for desperate snacking. And with so many of us working from home, the kitchen is never more than a few feet away. I never considered my “habit” harmful.

However, research suggests that the highly processed ingredients in junk food may be just as addictive— and therefore equally hard to resist — as booze and drugs. Natural or whole foods don’t have the same effect on our brains, which explains why we aren’t addicted to, say, strawberries. In this way, eating junk food is really no different than any other compulsive behavior. 

A key component in kicking addiction, experts say, is mindfulness. Too often I’m barely aware of what or how much I’m eating. By keeping a junk food journal, I have been able to look for patterns and make connections between what I eat and what was happening at the time that could have prompted me to eat it. I discovered that while I can usually resist the lure of ice cream and chocolate, I am utterly defenseless when it comes to pretzels and chips. Also, if I don’t buy it I don’t eat it. I stock kernels as a healthier alternative to microwave popcorn, but most of the time I’m too lazy to pop my own on the stove.

If I want a snack, I have to measure it out into a sensible portion. I never allow myself to eat straight from the bag because I will almost certainly empty it. And here’s the kicker: I no longer allow myself to eat in front of a screen of any kind, including phone, tablet, TV or computer. Since evenings are the devil, I always have a chamomile tea and a fidget toy on hand. Now that I know my junk food cravings are rarely about hunger, I try to pin down what I’m feeling and what I can do about it. If I’m restless, I can go for a walk. If I’m lonely, I can text a friend. If I’m afraid, I can meditate for 10 minutes.

Whenever feelings surface, I am learning to sit with them. It’s uncomfortable, and it doesn’t always work. If all else fails, I try to show myself compassion. I remind myself that I am human, these are hard times, and the answer to whatever I’m struggling with isn’t waiting for me at the bottom of a chip bag.