I gave up junk food for a month and dreamed about brownies and chips

Nicky Ison
Photograph: Tyncho/Getty Images/iStockphoto

Could you go a month without eating chocolate, chips or cake? I didn’t think I could. It turns out I was wrong.

For the last eight years my mother has been doing Junk Free June with her research team at the University of Melbourne. There has been a fair amount of “encouragement” over the years for me to join in. This year I bit the bullet and took the challenge. Surprisingly, it was much easier than I thought it would be.

A lesser-known cousin to Dry July, FebFast or Movember, Junk Free June is the idea that for a month you get sponsored not to eat junk food. For every day you eat junk-free, your sponsor donates $1 to the charity of your choice (in this case A Place for Indi). Every day you lapse you pay $1. Several sponsors means lapsing is expensive!

Related: My life without sugar | Olivia Judson

But what, you may ask, constitutes junk food? This it turns out is the topic of much debate for those doing the challenge. The general agreed idea is food with high fat or refined sugar. For me, I chose a slightly narrower definition: the junk food I cut out was the high fat or sugary stuff you snack on between and after meals. The brownie or biscuit that keeps you going through a long afternoon of work, or the bowl of chips when you go out for a drink with colleagues. The outing to the ice-cream parlour after dinner (hard when you live around the corner from one of the best ice-cream parlours in Australia – Cow and the Moon) or the tube of lollies you grab at the servo or airport when you’re traveling.

This was the junk food I was determined to cut out of my life for a month. For the most part I succeeded.

Clearly my route to a junk-free June is not for everyone. However, this is my “survival tip”: I did not deny myself snacks – I’m a grazer so that was never going to work. Rather, I replaced my snacking with healthier options. Many of my more health-conscious friends and family advocated dried fruit and nuts. But I found those options too insubstantial and ended up craving the brownies and chips (indeed a couple of nights in the beginning I even dreamed about them).

Instead, I started to create the habit of baking healthy but substantive snacks on the weekend, making sure there were enough to get me through the week. My snack of choice? The savoury muffin, complemented by a lot of fruit (gotta love mandarin season).

During the month I spent five days at conferences or events. These have typically been the days when I have snacked the most. With delicious cakes and pastries freely available and often few healthy options other than a few slices of fruit, it’s hard to abstain. However, abstain I did. But this was only possible with foresight and planning. I prebaked and brought two Tupperware containers full of savoury muffins on the bus with me to my week of events in Canberra.

Indeed, the two times I lapsed and succumbed to eating junk food during the month were times when I was most disorganised – leaving my beautiful home-cooked snacks in the fridge.

The first was the day I went to Melbourne. That day, as well as forgetting my muffins, I also forgot to eat lunch due to a midday flight. By the time I got to my 3pm meeting in a cafe I was extremely hungry and the only thing they were serving was cake. So when the choice became sitting through an important meeting only being able to think of food or breaking my junk fast, Junk Free June was sacrificed.

The second was on a Friday evening at the end of a long week, while I was catching up with a friend in a bar. My hunger from a lack of afternoon snacks meant the bowl of chips with my glass of wine was too hard to resist.

So why did I do it?

For my mum’s team in the social work department at the University of Melbourne, fundraising for a good cause is a key motivator. Given the fact that abuse of pets is one reason women don’t leave violent partners, the pet safety program A Place for Indi is a pretty good cause to be motivated by.

But my main motivator was to try and change my eating habits permanently.

As most books about habits will tell you, the hardest way to create a new habit is to rely purely on willpower, rather than circumstance and routine. So consciously working to establish a new routine, as part of a month-long effort with some degree of accountability, was extremely helpful. I actually have no plans to completely cut out chocolate, cakes and chips from my life. I love a delicious dessert! However, I do want to eat a lot less junk food. So, cutting junk out completely for a month has given me the impetus to create my new healthy snacking habit.

Related: Eating junk food raises risk of depression, says multi-country study

Halfway through July, my snack-free habits are not just surviving, they are starting to thrive. Every weekend I bake my muffins; every weekday I take them to work. The result: afternoon biscuits and brownies continue to be avoided and my colleagues like me even more than before because I bring baked goods to work.

While I’m back to eating the odd scoop of ice-cream or side of chips with a good pub meal, my new afternoon eating habit has me feeling healthier and happier. Moreover, my Junk Free June success has given me the confidence to take on the next new healthy habit – more regular exercise.

  • With thanks to Cathy Humphreys for leading Junk Free June. Interesting fact: both Cathy and Nicky lapsed twice during Junk Free June, once with cake and once with a bowl of chips. As they say “Mirror, mirror on the wall I’m like my mother after all!”

  • Nicky Ison is a research associate at the Institute for Sustainable Futures at the University of Technology Sydney and co-founder of the Community Power Agency