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How To Quit Junk Food

Shannon Harvey

If you’re anything like about half of the population, the chances are you started out the new year with the best of intentions. Perhaps you resolved to sleep more, or party less. Maybe you decided to loose weight, save money or donate time. Whatever it is that signifies your particular “New Year New Me” pledge, if you’re anything like up to 90 percent of your fellow resolvers, the chances are you’ve already failed, and possibly didn’t even make it through the first week.

I’m no exception. I’m a health journalist who’s job is to stay on top of the latest health advice and (as I’ve confessed many times before) I’m terrible at sticking to my goals. This year I was meant to attend three yoga classes a week (I haven’t even been to one), to learn to cook meals from scratch (my kids ate ravioli from a packet last night) and to quit junk food once and for all.

I have many good reasons to want to achieve these worthy goals. Mainly, I'm motivated by a desire to keep feeling well despite living with an autoimmune disease which flares up during times of high stress. But, as regular readers of this blog will tell you, wanting and actually doing are two different things and I'm all-too aware that I can't rely on willpower and good intentions alone. So, in order to finally make it to a yoga class, I’ve formulated an If-Then plan. (Check out my piece How To Find Time To Meditate if you’d like more on behaviour change expert Peter Gollwitzer’s highly effective technique.)

Making meals from scratch is a much bigger project, but I'm determined that my woeful culinary skills and lack of know-how won't hold me back. I made a start by signing up to learn from a wonderfully talented whole-foods, plant-based chef and over the last month I’ve also been compiling all my favourite recipes into one easy place.

As for my third ambition, unfortunately this is not the part where I tell you that I’ve discovered the super simple secret solution to quitting junk food. The truth is, giving up the “good” stuff is proving to be the most difficult of my resolutions. After all, I’m up against deeply embodied, long-established, often-unconscious habits. I’m also battling the cultural normalisation of eating foods such as “party” pies and “comfort” cookies, as well as the multi-billion dollar advertising budget of manufactures that dominate the food supply with spectacularly delicious, readily available, energy-dense, but nutrient-poor foods.

I was fascinated to come across research this week demonstrating that people attempting to cut down on eating highly processed foods experience withdrawal symptoms such as mood swings, cravings, anxiety, headaches and poor sleep in a similar way to people quitting smoking cigarettes or using marijuana. Other research shows that by merely setting the intention to quit junk food, I may have made it even harder to avoid because thinking about food can actually make it more likely that I’ll notice it.

This is all further complicated by the fact that I’m not even sure what the definition of junk food even is. My son wasn’t allowed to eat his home-made, wholemeal, vegan, sugar-free apple and banana muffin the other day because his school has a “no-treats” policy.


But all this is not to say that my quest is hopeless. Here are five things I’m doing in order to achieve my junk-free goal.

1. Junk-Free House

I started this concept after I interviewed a food-behaviour researcher for my podcast, who made the point that willpower is useless if junk-food is readily available. Unfortunately, I fell off the wagon over the Christmas period after well-meaning people gifted me a ton of candy and sweets – much of which had a “health halo,” which is a particular weakness of mine.

Essentially, the junk-free house concept involves not ordering any “discretionary” food in my weekly online shopping and having a strict no-candy aisle at the supermarket rule. It’s just too tempting.

If sweety treats still manage to find a way into my house (and they do, quite often) then the ones that cannot be thrown in the trash because they’re just too special, are squirrelled away in a cupboard in my laundry to be brought out at the right time.

2. Whole-Food Pantry

In January, I cleared out my pantry and it wasn’t pretty. I confess to finding bi-carbonate soda with a used-by date of 2014. The cupboard now basically only contains grains, nuts, beans, seeds, flours, tinned whole-foods and natural flavourings and spices. (We’ll see how long all my nice-neat organising and labelling lasts, but I’m going with a “begin as you mean to proceed” strategy here.)

The happy side-effect of this is that by buying in bulk, I’m hoping I’ll be saving money on groceries.

3. C.A.N (Convenient, Attractive, Normal)

I’ve deliberately engineered my environment so that I mindlessly eat well. Natural teas are prettily displayed to invite me to drink them, colourful fruit and vegetables are presented in baskets to invite me to eat them, and I pre-wash refrigerated fresh fruit such as grapes and blueberries so I can snack on them.

I based this idea on a 2015 analysis of 112 studies that collected information about healthy eating behaviours and found that there were three simple reasons most healthy eaters made healthy choices. Foods such as fruits and vegetables were:

  1. Visible and easy to reach. (Convenient)
  2. Enticingly displayed. (Attractive)

  3. Made them seem like obvious choices. (Normal)

4. Planning

By far my single biggest enemy to quitting junk food is not having enough time to prepare healthy alternatives. I’ve now relinquished an hour of my precious Saturday mornings to overcome this problem. I’m meal planning with lunchtime-leftovers in mind and ordering exactly what I need online. This way, when it’s 6:00pm after a long day at work and the thought, “What am I going to cook for dinner tonight?” pops into my head, the answer is sitting on a note on my refrigerator. So far, it’s proving to be a time-saver because I’m not having to zip to the supermarket as often. There’s also not as much food waste at the end of the week.

5. Attitude Change

I’ve changed my mental self-talk from “I have to quit junk-food” to “I want to quit junk food.” This is inspired by research which shows that self-control is harder when people are motivated by the feeling that they “have to” behave in a certain way. On the other hand, people who “want to” reach their goal experience fewer goal-disrupting temptations and don’t need to exert as much self-control. A “want to” goal is one that we feel internally motivated to accomplish for ourselves. For example, I want to quit junk-food so I can nurture a healthy gut microbiome and feel good.

I’ll keep you posted on my progress throughout the year, but if you have additional tips you can share, I’d love to read them in the comments below.

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