Let me start by saying: the battle with junk food addiction is everlasting. It's every bit as devastating and mind-altering as any other addiction, but in some ways, it's even more dangerous since junk food is all around us. It's not regulated nor forbidden. Chips, fries, candies, chocolate – it's all there, within your grasp. Its deadly hands are lurking in every grocery store, near every cash register, in every corner.
It's available. It's everywhere. And we often tell ourselves it's not that bad since it's food, after all, and you got to eat.
But every time after giving in to your cravings and finishing up that bag of chips, twinkies or candies, you'll feel miserable because you did it again and you know it's wrong what you did. You betrayed your body and hit it with another load that it has to go through. And then another. And another.
The dark side of the junk food addiction
We've been living in the hellish circle of junk food addiction for years but started admitting it to ourselves only recently.
Our usual cravings were chips, dip, Coca-Cola and sometimes something sweet. Usually, “chips” meant a huge bag of Lay's or Taffel chips for both, “Coca-Cola” meant a huge 2-liter bottle (or a “zip-pack” which contained 2×2 bottles which we drank within one day) and “something sweet” was often a 200-300 grams worth of sugary treats.
If you do the rough calculation, then average “junk day” meant nutrition-wise:
- Chips (Megapack): 1128,6 calories, 66 grams of fat, 116,6 grams of carbohydrates;
- Dip: 206 calories, 19 grams of fat, 5,80 grams of carbohydrates;
- Coca-Cola (per 1 liter, considering the days when we bought a 2-liter bottle): 420 calories, 106 grams of carbohydrates
- Chocolate (considering Milka here since that's what we often bought, nutrition per 150 grams): 840 calories, 52,5 grams of fat, 33,6 grams of carbohydrates.
Total? 2594,6 calories, 137,5 grams of fat, 262 grams of carbohydrates.
Just adding up these numbers here makes me want to slap myself for all those times we did it to ourselves.
And talking about all those times… We lived this kind of lifestyle for almost 6 years.
Sure, not every day was a “junk day”, but even when we didn't buy junk food, our normal diet mainly consisted of carbohydrates, fats, sugars and had barely any nutrition. When we didn't eat chips and dip, we bought McDonalds, Hesburger or something else, but it was always a very similar scenario, no matter which particular junk we put in our mouths.
We always knew in the back of the mind it's not okay and it's slowly destroying us. As we are young, our bodies can handle massive abuse without really showing any major signs. Even though we are still in our twenties, our bodies started showing some slight indications of something being off in our bodies. We were constantly tired, bloated, feeling like there's a huge stone stuck inside of us. My husband started showing signs of vitamin C and iron deficiency, my hair and skin was a mess and my periods were as unpredictable as the Estonian weather.
The turning point has always been our significant weight gain. When we were living in Tartu and ran with this terrible diet pattern, my husband started gaining a lot more weight than me since I was working in a department store and had to stay on my feet 12 hours straight, so I had a place to burn my calories at. He was more at home and had an office job as well, so he didn't move around as much and that started showing until he realized he had gained four dress sizes. He has always had a very lean build, one would even say he's somewhat a tiny man, but when he gained weight, a nice little bulge appeared on his tummy.
After that, we started working out for a while, but that didn't stick. Then our lives went haywire and healthy diet was the last thing in our minds, but as we moved around a lot more, his weight went back to normal.
Fast forward two and a half years, we were back in a steady life pace and had some peace and quiet. These last few years we've been working entirely from home which also means we're a lot less active. We don't really exercise – the most we move around is going out with our pooch every day for an hour or two.
Stable lifestyle and a lot less stress-free environment have now brought our attention completely to our health and how enormously we have screwed up our health these past years.
The first realization came a year ago when we had another one of our cravings. I went to the store, as per usual, to get chips, dip, and coke. The store was located about 200 meters from our apartment – we could literally see it from our windows. Since my other pants were in the laundry, I figured I'd wear one of the old jeans I hadn't worn for ages since they were a little bit too big and didn't fit nicely back then. I thought, what the heck – since the store is so close, I can handle my jeans being a little looser.
Oh boy, was I wrong! While putting on the jeans, I had to use all of my efforts to pull in my tummy and squeeze myself into the pants. I didn't want to admit to myself that the pants were too tight, so I used all of my energy to make myself look as if I'm not wearing pants that are clearly 2 sizes too small for me.
By the time I got to the zebra crossing, which – let me remind you – was just a few hundred meters from the apartment, the pants became literally painful to wear. No amount of holding my breath or trying to keep my tummy nice and lean helped anymore, the pants simply squeezed the life out of me. Unwilling to turn back, go home and say NO to the junk food, I opened the top button of my jeans and loosened the zipper, while still on the street. Thanks to my midi-length trench coat, no one could see neither what I was doing nor the fact that my jeans weren't buttoned.
Of course, without being buttoned and zippered, the jeans wanted to fall down and run off, probably to someone a bit skinnier who wouldn't tuck all that fat inside the pants, torturing the poor jeans. Luckily, the pants fit extremely tight around my thighs, so the only loose portion was the waist which I awkwardly held and supported with one of my arms while walking around the junk food aisles.
Even after realizing the sheer stupidity of the situation and knowing exactly the cause of this, I still grabbed that junk and bought it. That's the power of junk food addiction. You know very well in the back of your mind that it's wrong what you're doing, but the craving is often stronger.
I went back home and told my husband this has to be the last time since my jeans literally wanted to kill me halfway to the store.
Clearly, it wasn't the last time and that's when the real battle began.
However, it was a turning point. Before this, we hadn't thought much of the consequences nor about our health, we just bought the junk so we would feel good. We didn't discuss it being an issue and we didn't feel that badly about ourselves, though somewhere deep inside we knew it's a problem.
From this point forward, junk food became somewhat like a sin for us. It became a daily battle. Almost every time after having a “junk day”, we felt guilty. We felt we had betrayed ourselves again and destroyed our health, our lives. Every “junk day” felt like we had stolen a day from our lives. A day that could have been spent together. In a way, eating junk food almost started feeling like a death sentence.
We gradually started changing our diet, but junk food was still a weekly occurrence, often it happened several times in one week.
2018 has been the final turning point for us. We've studied diets, proper nutrition and started keeping track of our diet by marking down “good” and “bad” days. Just saying to each other “we can never do this again” didn't work, we needed stronger motivation, something to show us how BAD we really were. So we created a special system: we started marking down our “good” days by marking +10 points in the calendar for that day. Every “bad” day counted as -10 points. If we managed to eat clean for 10 straight days, we got extra 50 points for the tenth day.
As a special reward, we created a little prize called “teddy bear coupons” and for every 1000 points earned, we got one coupon that could be redeemed as money and used to buy something we wanted.
The prize itself wasn't even that important. The truth and motivation all laid in the calendar. When we had a bad strike, we saw those minus points staring at us, being visual displays of our guilt. Ever since starting that calendar count, our diets have changed completely.
True, our diets did change tremendously after starting the calendar system. However, setbacks can hit you hard and in the most unexpected moments. That happened to us as well.
It was a hot June day. Summer had finally arrived in Estonia. My husband had just received his driver's license earlier that week so our moods were up and we were pumped about our plans for the upcoming months.
On that hot June Saturday, we decided to do some grocery shopping as in any other day. As we had celebrated the driver's license a previous couple of days (and by celebrating I mean McDonald's and Ben & Jerry), we had decided that day: no more junk food that month, we'll eat clean. And that we did that morning – we started our Saturday with perfectly healthy food and continued with that in the afternoon by eating our “power-salad”, containing legumes, nuts, leafy greens, carrots, and many other nutrient-heavy items.
We walked in the grocery store's endless aisles to buy some essentials for the upcoming days. Little did we know that this shopping trip is not going to end well.
You see, the food addiction demon rose it's head again when it noticed Doritos sitting on one of the shelves. For many, a pack of Doritos is quite common but in Estonia, Doritos was a completely new product that neither I nor he had ever tasted. New products are especially terrible triggers that often help to justify the need for junk. And this time, that exact justification was used.
Without even hesitating for a second, we bought 2 packs of Doritos and a tiny extra pack of Santa Maria nacho chips. We headed home with a blissful plan to Netflix, chill and try Doritos while doing that.
As we had already eaten quite significantly that day – about 1000 calories – I wasn't actually hungry when we started eating the devilish chips. Even more, as the weather was steamingly hot, I had fueled myself with plenty of water which helped to make me feel even more full.
One would think it's easy to stop eating when you're full already but as a food junkie, you won't care. You won't care you are full or aching. All you crave for is that bag of chips, piece of chocolate or a sip of Coca-Cola. You might feel as if your stomach will explode, but nothing will stop you until you really can't even move yourself.
I was already full before eating, but we still managed to eat those 2 bags of Doritos and started on the third, tiny bag. That's where we gave up though as neither of us could physically put anything else in our mouths. I tried though – he gave up after eating 2 extra chips, but I managed to eat a good quarter of that bag.
It was the worst decision ever.
My stomach felt as if there's a huge rock in my intestines. I could almost identify myself with the big bad wolf from Red Riding Hood after the wolf had received it's stomach-full of rocks. It felt like there's a rock that's just stuck inside me and it won't move anywhere. It was burdening and so painful I couldn't sit behind my laptop anymore and had to lie down.
I was hoping laying down will help to ease the pain and I'll start feeling better in a moment, but it didn't happen. For a second, I thought to myself: “What if this time I really hurt myself badly and something's wrong with my digestive system…”. It was scary as hell.
I'm not a big puker either. I've puked only a handful of times in my entire life and I can't even make myself puke, not even after giving my best shot at putting my fingers inside my throat and trying to ignite the gag reflex.
My dear husband brought me a glass of water to calm my intestines or at least make me puke.
Nothing changed though. I was still feeling like I'm carrying 20 pounds of rocks inside me.
All of a sudden, I started having shivers. To remind you, it was a remarkably hot summer day – over 25 degrees (Celsius) and we had opened all of our apartment windows to get some air flowing through the rooms. It was one of the hottest days but I started shivering and every single hair on my arms showed the shivers clearly, so I wrapped myself in a blanket and breathed deeply as if I was rehearsing for labor. Well, I was, indeed, trying to give birth to something, but something very ugly.
And then it happened. Me, who rarely pukes and can't even put herself to start puking in the most painful situations, felt how a tingly feeling climbed upwards my throat, giving a warning sign of an upcoming eruption. I threw off the blanket that had provided me much-needed warmth and ran to the toilet, barefoot and aching all over my stomach.
There it happened. I started puking as if there's no tomorrow, covering the toilet and most of its surroundings with yellow slime that had a tiny resemblance to the previously devoured Doritos tortilla chips. To spice things up, I coughed out tiny pieces of paprika that had tasted so good in our cheese dip, just an hour before my puke-fest.
Pain, discomfort, and shame covered me, on top of the yellow mush that had burst out of me and onto my pajama bottoms. Those were my favorite pajama bottoms, decorated with tiny dog print. Now both my grey doggy-printed pajama bottoms and my bare feet were covered with splatters of yellow-red slime.
I was ashamed.
Not only had I puked all over the toilet, even on the wall and myself, but I had done that to myself after swearing I won't do that again. The discomfort in my stomach decreased, while emotional pain, shame, and anger grew.
Even worse, I did that to my husband. Sure, he didn't puke, but he had to witness me going through that pain and felt himself to be blamed as he didn't say “no” to me in the grocery store.
Once I was certain no more of the yellow mush was coming out of me, I washed and changed clothes to feel like a decent person again. My husband said he'll clean up the toilet, a statement which made me worryingly scream: “NO!” Tears started running down my face and I said to him: “It's my mess! You should never ever clean up my mess, I want to do it myself!”. I couldn't in my right mind let him clean up after me, especially now that he had had to witness these 20 minutes of constant puking. He even held my hair and brought me a scrunchy to put my hair up to a ponytail. He brought me paper towels and was there for the whole 20 minutes.
I just couldn't let him clean up now too. I was ashamed already and angered towards myself, letting him clean was just the last straw as it made me feel as if I'm hurting him even more by allowing this to happen.
He touched me lovingly and said with his “this-is-not-up-for-a-discussion” face: “I WANT to do it!”. And so he did.
If you're not sure about your husband loving you, then cleaning up your puke is a sure-fire sign.
I couldn't believe my addiction had gone to such extremities. I was, for god's sake, already full. I had no legitimate reason to buy junk food. We had agreed on eating clean for the rest of the month as we already celebrated for 2 days and had filled our allowed “quota” of junk days for the month. But it still happened. The demon took over and grabbed those chips as if my mind had no control over my actions. As if all reason had stayed behind the grocery store's doors.
We weren't sad. We were, in fact, probably the happiest we had been for several months as the driving exam was putting a lot of stress on us previously. Now that had been solved and life seemed perfect. We were happy and fulfilled but that didn't matter. Food addiction demon doesn't need any reason. It doesn't ask for permission. It makes you lose all sense of reality and forget about your promises, forget about the way junk food will make you feel later.
It's a battle we're fighting every single day when we wake up. We're sometimes thankful for getting the day to the point in the evening when all stores are closed because that means there's no easy way for us to be tempted. Every day when I need to buy milk or oranges or dog food, I'm afraid of the demon raising its head and making me do something incredibly stupid.
The shame, guilt, and sore throat woke up my sense of reality.
Next day I saw some tiny red dots around my eyes – those were tiny capillaries that had broken due to the force that goes through your face when you puke. A sore throat and those tiny freckle-like dots were the proof of what had happened the day before.
Why are we addicted to junk food?
There's no definitive answer at least not until today, other than it tastes good, but food addiction is a legitimate problem that is being studied and several speculations and facts have been brought to light. Food additives, salts, sugars, fats – all of this combined in junk food makes it taste so unbelievably good that you simply crave for more. A few years ago, we used junk food as a way to feel happier, even though our actual situation was far from it.
Now our lives are much more stable and we can honestly say we are happy. However, the cravings are strong and once you've been on the junk food Ferris wheel, it's hard to jump off.
Research has more answers and the findings are baffling. A great piece published in The New York Times explored this issue in depth as the author Michael Moss dived into the crazy world of food processing. Getting you to repeatedly eat and buy these nasty addictive products is an exact science and companies are constantly working in order to push their sales higher by keeping you hooked. Keeping you addicted.
Why is junk food addiction so hard to overcome?
Overcoming any addiction is not easy. It does not make you weak, it does not mean you don't have willpower.
No one can deny that junk food is delicious. It's good, it makes you feel good, it makes you happy. Our brains are hardwired towards grabbing everything that makes us feel happy and if a salad is not your happiness stimuli, then it's clear your brain will direct you towards the chips aisle.
And the sad part is, when you consume junk food in moderation, it's not that dangerous. The key to the problem lies in the difficulty of keeping junk food portions moderate. You'll eat a few chips, then a few more and a few more, until you've devoured the whole bag. And then another bag. That's how the hellish circle begins.
We haven't overcome the junk food addiction yet. We are addicts. We'll always be addicts. But we are growing, we are getting stronger and we've come to a point where we have admitted the issue to ourselves. Will we ever overcome it? We are working towards it. However, I'm constantly afraid that even after having 2-3 weeks of a clean diet, that one tiny “junk day” may kickstart a rollercoaster towards a month-long junk spree.
Every time we eat junk, we feel like junk. We don't want that to keep happening. We want to live happy, fulfilling, long lives. Food shouldn't control you, you should control food. Yes, it tastes great. It makes you happy. But after all, it's fuel. If you fuel yourself with junk, your body will react to it and your health WILL become junk. There's no other way to spin it.
Moral of the story? Food addiction is more than real. It's a harsh reality many of us are experiencing, even more of us not realizing what's happening. Are you buying that chocolate bar because you are hungry or because you are filling some sort of void in yourself? Food should never replace happiness and it never can. No amount of chocolate, candies or chips can make you feel something you're not feeling inside you already. Junk food will destroy you, both mentally and physically.
Don't grab that bag of chips. Don't eat that burger. Don't look for happiness from a candy bar. Don't destroy yourself. We destroyed ourselves for 6 years before realizing what we were doing. You are stronger than food. Don't let cravings control you. Eat to empower your body. Food is your friend, your life source, your fuel – treat your body with the best and it will treat you equally.
This article is a personal story that talks about real-life experiences our staff or readers might have experienced. If you'd like to share a real-life experience, feel free to share your story with us.