Junk Food: A Character Flaw

by J.D. Roth

I have no self-control.

This is the fundamental reason that for so long I was fat, in debt, and unable to do anything productive. Instead of doing what I ought to do, I always chose what I wanted to do. These rarely overlapped.

When I decided it was time for me to get out of debt, I had to find ways to short-circuit my lack of self-control. That meant setting up automatic payments and deposits, whenever possible. That meant finding ways to make frugality fun. That meant removing temptation when I could.

For example, I cut up my personal credit card. Without the ability to spend charge my purchases, I was less inclined to buy on credit. (I still found ways, but they took work.) And one of the best methods I found to stop spending on stupid stuff was to steer clear of the stores where I was most likely to do so. For a long time, I wouldn’t go into a comic shop, for instance, because I knew that doing so was dangerous.

Another example: I have no self-control when it comes to videogames. If they’re installed on my computer, I will play World of Warcraft or Starcraft II to the exclusion of all else. In fact, I wasted much of this past August playing Starcraft II for 6+ hours each day. How do I stop? I have to uninstall the games. Lately, I’ve been playing iPad games 1-2 hours per day. To short-circuit this lack of self control, I’m taking my iPad to the office and leaving it there.

The same problem holds true with food. I have no self-control when it comes to sweets. If there are cookies or candies in the house, I will eat them — sooner rather than later. And I have a tendency to indulge every craving my body has. Hungry for donuts? Boom! Have three! Want some cookies? Bam! Here’s a package of Oreos.

I’ve lost forty pounds this year. That’s great, but the truth is, I could have lost fifty with ease. How? Exercising self-control.

Last week, Kris bought two packages of Oreos to re-purpose for Christmas truffles. (She makes an Oreo truffle that everyone loves.) I found these cookies, and I couldn’t help myself. I had nine Oreos and a glass of milk. Thirty minutes later, I had another nine Oreos and a glass of milk. Before the end of the day, I had another nine Oreos and a glass of milk.

This isn’t healthy, but it’s how I operate. And I know it.

Because I know my self-control is weak, I’ve taken steps to thwart myself. Since I can’t be disciplined on a micro level, I try to be disciplined on a macro level. Translation: Since I know I’ll eat the Oreos if they’re in the house, I try not to have Oreos in the house. Or breakfast cereal. Or ice cream. Since starting my diet in April, I’ve done my best to keep the house junk-food-free.

That doesn’t mean I don’t have junk food. I do. I just don’t have as much.

I often think of the conversation I had with Sally Parrott Ashbrook when she came to town in 2007. (She and her husband were the first GRS readers that Kris and I ever met.) She had recently begun her regimen of “self-care”, and as part of that, she was trying to give up junk food, too.

“I try to tell myself that I don’t need this cookie or ice cream,” she told me. “If I really want ice cream, I remind myself that I can have any ice cream in Atlanta.” What she meant by this was (I think): Instead of keeping store-bought junk food in the house, she gave herself permission to occasionally go out and buy some good junk food. So, instead of having always-on-hand ice cream, once in a while she could go get the best ice cream in town. Or the best cookies. Or the best cake. The key was to ditch the everyday temptation.

That’s what I’ve tried to do this year. For the most part, it’s worked.

Mind Games

Here’s one way I’ve made this work: Whenever I have the urge to eat junk food, I try to tell myself that I can eat anything I want. If I’m driving home from Crossfit and I crave donuts (which happens often), I consciously think to myself, “J.D., you don’t have to eat that shit. You can stop now and buy any food you want, as long as it’s healthy.” So I do.

My definition of “healthy” is broad in this instance, but it rules out breakfast cereal, cookies, cakes, donuts, chips, and soda. It includes fruits, vegetables, cheeses, and meats. As a result, instead of donuts for breakfast, I’ll often eat a $15 filet mignon. No joke. Yes, it’s expensive, but I’m okay with that.

The point is, I’m trying to train myself to forget about the shitty food and eat stuff that’s better for me. When I remember to do this, it works like a charm. (But I’ve been forgetting recently.)

Why this rant about self-control? Because my friends and family have unknowingly sabotaged me this Christmas. They’ve kindly given me Life Savers and jelly beans and candy bars and cookies and, best of all, a giant Godiva brownie containing over 5,000 calories. I’m grateful for these gifts, but I have no defense against them.

I see the jumbo bin of jelly beans, and I grab a handful. I eat them mindlessly. By the end of the day, I’ve had three or four handfuls, for about about 500 calories of pure sugar. And so on.

As I say, I have no self-control.

A part of me wants to keep this food around the house because my family and friends have given it to me. To show my appreciation, I want to eat it. But I can’t. I have to draw a line. I sent some of it to work with Kris on Tuesday. She took the big barrel of jelly beans today. All that’s left in the house is the gigantic brownie — and soon that will be gone, too. (But that’s because it’ll all be in my belly, not because I’ve magically developed self-control.)

Maybe someday I will have enough discipline to not eat the junk food in the house. But that day isn’t today. And it won’t be tomorrow, or anytime soon. It’ll probably take years. I’m okay with that. For now, I’ll continue to exercise self-control on a macro level since I don’t have it on a micro level. We won’t have junk food within easy reach. When I crave junk food, I’ll give myself permission to have anything healthy that I want. And if I absolutely have to have it, I’ll let myself go buy the best ice cream (or candy or cookies) that I can find in Portland.

For now, though, I’m going to go pour myself a glass of milk. There’s one last brownie to be eaten.

Updated: 29 December 2010

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