When eating junk is the best thing you can do for your health

I toxed up over the holidays, and now I feel great. You can too.

Maria Cross MSc
Jan 4 · 5 min read
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If, like me, you threw caution to the wind during the holiday festivities, you are on the right road. I fell, and have no regrets. Like many a divine revelation, this fall led to the formation of basic guiding principles for a better life.

Below are the four principles of junk food therapy, and how to apply them to your own endeavours.

But first, let me tell you how I came to have this fall and subsequent epiphany.

The road to enlightenment

Ordinarily, I enjoy excellent health. I ascribe that happy state to my good diet and regular exercise. But something strange happened over the festive period, something akin to an alien abduction, only weirder.

I am not coerced into my transgressions; nobody puts me under pressure to plough into bowls of yellow, salty snacks of indeterminate origin at a neighbour’s party. I go willingly into that dark night.

Worse still, I even start making my own sugary, carby snack foods and am proud of my achievements. When Mr Cross, head chef in our household, is too busy with the main meal to make pastry, I cheerfully and without hesitation offer my services. Like riding a bike, I haven’t forgotten this skill. From the back of a cupboard I unearth a bag of plain white flour, and the good news is that it is only two years out of date. I am soon up to my elbows in flour, creating a powder puff of white fallout. The mince pies and sausage rolls that ensue are a triumph.

Then there’s the cake I make. A brandy-soaked fridge cake, featuring, as well as generous amounts of brandy, melted dark chocolate, butter, crushed ginger biscuits, chestnuts and dried fruit. A resounding success. While I’m at it, I recover a bottle of Bailey’s from the cabinet, now on its third Christmas outing. It tastes divine. The combination of whiskey, cream and sugar is pure seduction, lighting up the reward centres of my brain like a firework display. Better have another one, and then pour some over the fridge cake when I serve it up later.

A separate family lunch two days after the main event means that there is barely pause for moderation between mouthfuls. An excellent homemade tiramisu is produced after the meal. Nobody puts it in my bowl; I do that by myself.

Driving home, there is a clagginess in my mouth. Too much sugar, too little water.

Downhill from here

It is just as well I have taken a break from writing during the festive period, because as well as being too busy making and eating “fun” food, my brain really isn’t functioning as it should. I have started waking up in the middle of the night, my mind racing. In the morning I awake with an unfamiliar mental fog. I function well enough to continue with my new-found decadence, but not enough to do anything productive. My holiday reading is limited to the TV guide.

I feel as if a cataract has been stretched across my mental faculties.

Plus, it’s been a week since my last morning run, and I miss it. Even without the change in routine that has thrown everything up into the air, I simply wouldn’t have the energy. I know it’s a blood sugar thing, and after just a few days of this I have well and truly had enough.

I realise that this sub-optimal functioning must be the norm for so many people. Most people, if their supermarket trolleys are anything to go by.

How do people who live on junk food all year round manage to get through each day, I wonder. Like functioning alcoholics who somehow hold down jobs and even life, but in a lower gear.

I am reminded of just how powerful food is. How it affects your sense of wellbeing, energy and mood, the quality of your sleep, your level of physical fitness and overall zest for life. How within just a few days you can transition from mental clarity to fog and lethargy.

So that’s it. So long, devil’s food; it’s been fun. But now it’s time to return to my default diet. And I do. Almost immediately I feel like my old self again.

To know what optimal mental and physical health feels like, you have to first experience the alternative. There’s no light without shade, after all. And that is the first principle of junk food therapy. Ignore all the media drivel about the New Year bringing in the New You. This isn’t the new you, it’s the real you, the one who’s been there all along, but standing in the dark.

The second principle is about focus. Redirect your mental energy towards the outcome, not the process. Focus on what you are about to gain, not what you give up, because the benefits you can expect to experience when you cut the crap far outweigh the sacrifices you make. So expect energy and clarity, and keep this in mind when you feel a moment of weakness coming on.

The third principle is based on strict avoidance of words like detox or cleanse; these are subtlety judgemental terms that insinuate you have sullied yourself. You haven’t. You’ve just had a bit of fun. OK, perhaps too much fun, and for too long, but your new focus is on the future, not the past.

The fourth principle holds that there is no requirement to start juicing grasses into a slurry, or knock back powdered meals. These miserable food substitutes will soon send you straight back to the comfort of your old eating habits. All you need is real food, the kind that has nourished the human body for hundreds of thousands of years and ensured the survival of our species. There isn’t space to go into the details of what that entails here, but you can read the basics of what I call “the human diet” in my article You only need one diet.

If your plans for the year ahead include eating well and achieving the best possible health, I hope it is clear now that you have to approach your goal from the right angle. The road to enlightenment is not about punishing yourself for past misdemeanours: that way lie guilt and failure. Instead, turn your dietary indiscretions into a force for good.

My own, seasonal aberration is enough to see me through the year. I have returned to normality, and to the clarity and energy that normality brings.

The bottle of Bailey’s is back in the cabinet. It will see another Christmas, and no doubt provide another timely reminder of what it means to feel this good.

Maria Cross MSc

Written by

Nutritionist and nutrition science writer, specialising in diet and mental health. Subscribe to AllYouCanEat.org.uk for free brain food guide. @MariaXCross

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