Confessions of a Closet Junk Food Junkie:

By Sara Vigneri

One Health Reporter’s Journey to Practice What She Preaches

Time is running out. I have a huge reporting assignment due in 24 hours and I haven’t even thought about what to make for dinner. My daughters need help with homework and they have absolutely no clean underwear for school tomorrow. The stress is creeping up but I muddle through. After putting out some metaphorical fires (“I left my homework at school!”) and one small literal fire (forgot to take the paper wrapper off the frozen pizza I stuck in the toaster for dinner), the night winds down. With the kids tucked into bed, I settle down to tackle my assignment. But I’m tired and cranky and stressed out. So I allow myself to sink into the comfortable embrace of a crunchy Twix bar chased down with Diet Coke. The combo of chocolate, sugar and caffeine gives me the gentle nudge I need to stay up until my assignment is complete and I can officially call it a day.

My assignment? Research and report about the ill effects of inactivity and processed foods on our health. I pause for a moment as I run through my evening: frozen pizza for dinner laden with saturated fat and preservatives? Check. Diet Coke packed with potentially harmful chemicals and food colors? Check. Processed sugary snack? Check. Exercise? Uh, not unless you count walking to the kitchen. The irony of the situation sinks in. Here I am, a health reporter, subsisting on junk food to get through my day. My work schedule ebbs and flows and when the going is good, I eat well and do yoga and walk to school with my kids. But once things get tough, when my body most yearns for nourishment to get through stressful time-crunching deadlines, that’s when I throw all my good sense out the window and foolishly attempt to relieve my stress and sleep deprivation with junk food.

I remember working at my college newspaper and enjoying a late night pizza delivery as we burned the midnight oil to get the proofs to the printer on time. There was a Woodward and Bernstein-esque thrill to fueling myself with forbidden food—as I wolfed down my pizza I would picture the two of them smoking their cigarettes as they slaved around the clock to break the Watergate story. I didn’t smoke cigarettes but I would chug Diet Coke like a fiend. I even jokingly referred to Diet Coke as my ”addiction”—that is until I had my first kidney stone a few years ago and realized that there are consequences to my vices. After the kidney stone incident, I swore off diet cola and switched to seltzer with lemon. And I stick to it—most of the time. But there are always those nights when I realize I have six hours of work left and it’s already 9 p.m. That’s when I make a quick trip to the mini-mart and pick up a large diet soda and throw in a candy bar, just like old times (you don’t think I’m crazy enough to keep this stuff in the house, do you?). As I bite into the chocolate and sip the caffeinated soda, the thrill returns—I’m Woodward again, ”chain-smoking” my way through the night.

I’m sure you can relate. I’m willing to bet that when you are exhausted and staring at piles of work to do, the last thing you think of is, “I should go for a jog and eat an apple.” But the reality is, as we get older, this stress-fueled lifestyle chips away at our health. I don’t want to wait until I have a debilitating disease before I realize I need to change my ways. And truthfully, if I can’t take my own advice, how can I expect anyone else to?

So this is it. I swear. As soon as I hand in this essay, I’m done with abusing my body. I’m going to get back to my yoga class, drinking my seltzer with lemon, enjoying a small piece of chocolate at normal intervals, sleeping a full eight hours and…who am I kidding? I know that as soon as the stress creeps up I’ll be reaching for the M&M’s. If I really want to set an example, I need to set realistic goals. We all do. Acknowledge our weaknesses and work within our limitations. Because when all is said and done, nothing is more important than setting a good example for my girls so they can do as I say, and as I do.

Sara Vigneri, an experienced health journalist, has officially switched over to green tea and dark chocolate to get through the deadline-crunch.

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