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.

13 Replies to “Junk Food: A Character Flaw”

  1. Lydia says:

    Ugh, junk food is my Achilles heel as well. My food allergies make it even more … interesting because I’m unable to eat many desserts. When I find something “safe” I tend to pig out because it’s such an uncommon occurance! 😮 Like you I’ve found the greatest defense against it is to not keep that stuff in the house (except for special occasions or when something fantastic is on sale.)

  2. mrs darling says:

    I hear ya. But how much you wanna bet its not a matter of self control and willpower. Its really an insulin problem. You eat the sugar, insulin rushes out to take care of it and your pancreas produces more than it needs so then the insulin demands more sugar and a vicious cycle is set up. I have the same experiences with simple carbs and sugars that you do. It’s a bummer.

  3. It didn’t occur to me until I was in my mid-twenties that I could even HAVE self control. I just assumed that I was the type of person that would always be compulsive. Buy this, eat that, drink this, consume that…I didn’t realize that I could stop.

    When the realization first dawned on me, it scared the bejesus out of me and I forced myself not to even think about it. Who wants to stop spending (ooo, look at that lovely new something-or-other) and who want to stop eating (it’s a chocolate-covered marshmallow, for crying out loud)?

    I finally had to do away with it all. I gave up shopping, needless spending, junk food….everything that was taking out chunks of my self-respect and putting chunks into my a**. I’m only four months in, but I’m thankful that I decided to chronicle the whole thing online. It’s a wonderfully supportive community, as you know.

    The compassion of strangers gets me every time.

    Good next in the new year. Thanks for being so inspirational.

    • jdroth says:

      It didn’t occur to me until I was in my mid-twenties that I could even HAVE self control.

      That’s an awesome way to put it, Elizabeth. This fits me to a T, except replace “mid-twenties” with “late thirties”. If you read Get Rich Slowly, you know that one of my fundamental tenets is that “nobody cares more about your money than you do”. But in a broader sense, what this really means is that nobody cares more about your life than you do.

      What do I mean?

      I think that many people — and I’m one of them — keep waiting for somebody to come along and fix things for them, to tell them what’s wrong. But once you’ve left your parents’ house, that’s not going to happen. (Or, if it does, you’re just going to resent it.) You have to figure out what’s wrong. You have to fix what’s broken. This may be obvious for some people, but there are a lot of people who never realize this. And some, like me, don’t figure it out until they’re 37 years old.

      All of these changes I’ve made in the past five years have been because I’ve finally decided to stop waiting for life to happen to me, stopped being a passenger, and started driving the bus myself. (Labored metaphor, I know.) I’ve decided to make changes, decided to do what I want, decided to pursue what makes me happy. So far, so good.

      But there’s still a lot of work to be done. I mean, I let a stupid brownie have so much power over me. That’s ridiculous. I’m no stronger than a brownie? Right now, I’m not. But I’m working on it.

      Anyhow, I loved your comment, especially that first sentence.

  4. Eden J says:

    This is great advice! Just today I was trying to talk myself into un-installing World of Warcraft from my computer. I hadn’t succeeded yet, but I think I’m inspired enough to do it now. Same with the junk food too of course. I really need to stop keeping that in the house. Thanks for the inspiration…time for me to do some deleting.

  5. Paul says:

    I’ve come to the realization that if I never eat in the car again I could lose a bunch of weight. Most of my mistakes are made in the car: drive through, convenience store, etc.

  6. Heather says:

    What if you had self-control?

    Or, better, what if you believed you had self-control?

    Or, best, what if you didn’t need self-control because cereal, cookies, cake, donuts, ice cream didn’t draw you in?

    I’m a big believer in self-talk and self-fulfilling prophecy. “I have no self-control.” So you don’t stand a chance.

    Can you imagine driving by the donut shop and not wanting to go in? (It’s possible that you can’t imagine that.)

    If you can create vivid, lifelike pictures in your head (in first person) of how you want to be (as if it were already so), your brain goes bonkers because there is dissonance and it resolves the dissonance; our brains really like everything to match.

    I have used this to curb my habit of taking seconds (or thirds). I have used this to be able to walk through the teachers’ lounge on a birthday cake day without even being tempted by cake. I know others who have used it to curb compulsive shopping. I used it when I was diagnosed with cancer and had clean scans two months before medically anticipated. (I went to a three-day training on this for work, actually, a few years ago. I went again when they offered it again.)

    I used to be a sweets freak. Now, almost always, I don’t crave them, I can be near them and not keep munching on them, I can have a little bit of something I really like and be content.

    I cannot describe to you how freeing this is. After over 30 years of being run by food, I am run by me and take what I want or need.

    Happy to give you more detail if you are interested.

  7. SG says:

    Great post! I like your macro/micro distinction here. I used the same technique – control it on the macro level if you have failed repeatedly on the micro level. But only when I read this post I realized it.

    With me, it’s internet usage. I can’t control it on a micro level – I cannot resist the temptation to open a browser window and just check mail, news or the weather when I should rather be working. So I installed some internet blocking software and since then it has become more difficult to access the web during worktime.

  8. Pam says:

    I agree that eliminating temptation is the best way to avoid it. So next year why not have a “pre-emptive” rant? Tell everyone you know you don’t want all that crap for x-mas. Tell Kris not to bring the Oreos into the house until the very minute she is going to use them. Only except dinner invitations with the caveat: but only if there is no dessert. Take back control where you feel that others are “sabotaging” you.

  9. Jamie says:

    Great post! My husband and I wonder if doing an experiment with a padlock would work…. Keep your sweets within a container that is locked, and make it an additional, conscious step to get into. Perhaps even make it so it’s attached to the treadmill 😀 (And we’re hoping to get to Portland again soon and hopefully meet up with you two again! We moved to Seattle, so we’re closer than we used to be 🙂
    And enjoy that brownie! Sounds *amazing*!

  10. bethh says:

    oooh, that’s a good one. I have gotten better about having junk at home, but then sometimes I just seem to lose it. It sounds like Kris doesn’t mind your new rules, which is helpful – I’ve always felt sorry for a two-person household that has to follow the rules that mainly benefit only one resident (though it sounds like Kris can probably take or leave the crap anyway).

    I have gotten to a good place financially but my fitness/weight issues are identical from 20 years ago. That’s vastly preferable to having gained 100 pounds, sure, but then again – I sometimes wonder if I’m going to think about losing the same 20-40 pounds for MY WHOLE LIFE.

  11. Erika says:

    It’s not working fantastic, but I am continuing to try “Intuitive Eating.” The premise is that diets automatically cause you to crave, and it’s possible to reduce your cravings by slowly, hyper-consciously working through all your danger foods, one by one. Some that you crave, if you sit and eat them slowly, with no distractions, aren’t that great. They then become non-issues. Others you’ll always love.

    Anyway, I’ve read a ton on this and continue to try. I just can’t diet again…each time my self-discipline gets shorter and shorter, and I truly believe self-discipline is limited. I need to change my mindset and learn to eat like a naturally thin person if I want any changes to last.

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