How To Avoid The Junk Food Trap

Have you heard the one about the nutritionist who struggled to follow her own advice? No? Then here goes.

A while back I travelled to London to attend a conference organized by the World Cancer Research Fund. I got up at 5 a.m. to catch my flight, chugged around London’s vast Underground system for two hours to get to the conference center, and spent the ensuing eight hours in windowless rooms staring at PowerPoint slides and taking notes about the epidemiological, agricultural, political, epigenetic, sociological and other facets of cancer in the modern world.

Teatime and lunch provided welcome breaks, but there were delegates to meet, papers to collect and video interviews to record, and before I knew it, I had spent an entire day eating very little, getting no exercise and glimpsing no daylight (in addition to not sleeping much the previous night). Unsurprisingly, by the end of the day I felt a bit out of sorts.

Mustering what little energy I had left, I travelled (again by Underground) to a suburb where I was staying in the house of a vacationing friend who had left me a key and a kind note inviting me to eat anything in her kitchen cupboards. My blood-sugar level was dropping by the minute and my exhaustion was palpable. “Chocolate biscuits!” my brainscreamed upon reading my friend’s note.

I hunted high and low, but not a cookie crumb was to be found. “Potato chips” was my next hope. Another round of frantic cupboard-door-clacking ensued as I searched for salty snacks – in vain. “Sugar-frosted breakfast cereal?” I pleaded. Again, nothing.

Instead, my friend’s cupboards yielded jar upon jar of raw almonds, hazelnut butter, walnuts, pumpkin seeds, dried apricots, oats, quinoa, tea, raw honey, low-sugar fruit spreads, whole wheat pasta and brown basmati rice. Her refrigerator contained plain yogurt, a bottle of semi-skimmed milk, a piece of farmhouse cheddar, and a few jars of condiments.

Dejected and too hungry to continue the search, I cooked a bowl of oatmeal porridge, stirred in some yogurt and blackberry spread, and sprinkled it with chopped walnuts and cinnamon. It was surprisingly delicious. A hunk of cheese provided the fat, salt and protein I was craving. Finally, a cup of strong English tea warmed my insides, and by the end of my humble supper I was back to my old self.

Feeling more than a little sheepish, I realized what had happened:  hungerand fatigue had pushed me into that crazy place, the junk food trap. Only the complete absence of junk forced me to eat a healthier alternative, and I felt much the better for it.

And here’s the irony of the story: Some years back this friend was a client of mine, and my advice had been: “Don’t keep unhealthy foods at home, because when you do, you will eat them.” Obviously she had heeded my advice!

When we buy unhealthy food (out of habit, or because there was a special offer on, or our children or spouse ask us to buy it, or the advertisers make it seem irresistible), we end up eating it. On days when all is going well and we’ve got the time and energy to prepare healthy dishes, we may be less tempted by junk. But when we’re in a rush or are feeling exhausted, depressed or ravenously hungry, we’ll eat *anything* — especially sugary, starchy foods that rapidly convert into blood sugar and lift our flagging energy levels. We don’t necessarily choose these knowingly — our biochemistry steers us towards high-energy instant gratifiers.

“Most of us have too much chaos going on in our lives to consciously focus on every bite we eat,” psychologist and mindful-eating expert Brian Wansink said recently at the American Psychological Association’s annual meeting. “The secret is to change your environment so it works for you rather than against you.”

His advice is to keep unhealthy foods, such as cake and potato chips, out of sight and to put healthy foods like fruit and vegetables at eye level. This way, we can eat better without even realizing we’re doing it. According to Wansink, avoiding “hidden eating traps,” like making junk food easily accessible or eating in front of the TV, can help us to lose up to two pounds per month.

I would go even further: don’t keep unhealthy food in the house at all — because when we’re really desperate, we will go to extremes to retrieve it from its hiding place. There’s enough unhealthy food swirling around us in offices, schools, gas stations and at social occasions. Let’s keep our homes junk-free.

Many of us — flushed with New Year’s resolve — are trying to break free from unhealthy behaviors. A wildly popular resolution is to eat less rubbish and shed a few pounds. So rather than testing your discipline and struggling to resist the siren call of the cookies “hidden” on top of your kitchen cabinet, how about simply getting rid of all the junk and daring to eat only healthy food at home?