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How I Finally Gave Up Junk Food

Under duress, the author abandoned Ring Dings for stir-fry

By Peter Gerstenzang | June 4, 2014

I used to be under the impression that I took pretty good care of myself. I didn’t smoke; I drank moderately. The only thing that needed improving was my workout schedule. By “regular exercise,” I think they meant more than a brisk walk every Labor Day.
 
Still, I figured everything was OK body-wise — as long as my waitress never suggested I get the diet plate or called me “Pops.” Or, until I had to switch over from my Size 32 Levi's to a pair of Pajama Jeans.
 
But then I went in for a check-up and had some blood work done, and all my illusions crumbled.

(MORE: Fiftysomething Diet: 5 Foods You Should Never Eat — or Try Not To!)

My Doctor Wanted to Talk
 
It’s never a good sign when your doctor calls and asks you to come in for a talk, and you’re pretty sure he doesn’t want to discuss foreign policy.

I asked Dr. Granger why he needed to see me, and he said, “It’s nothing.” His response had me so panicked that after we hung up, I immediately applied for that life insurance sold by Alex Trebek. I even looked skyward and promised, "If you let me live, I’ll start attending church regularly — as soon as I find out where it is."
 
Anxiously, I went to the doc’s office the next day to find out what was wrong. That’s when I learned that the only thing I was about to die from was embarrassment.

Ding Dong: No More Ding Dongs
 
“What have you been eating?” Granger asked. “Have you been out scavenging with a pack of wild dogs?”
 
He told me my cholesterol numbers were close to the size of the national debt. Sheepishly, I copped to my bad dietary habits. Like too many other folks over 40, I was still eating like a teenager. I chose snacks because they were either tasty or had great names, like Ring Dings, Ho Hos, Ding Dongs, Bugles and Pringles.

(MORE: Why We're Addicted to Unhealthy Snacks)                    
 
In small amounts, this would be OK. But I was one of those people who still thought Little Debbie brownies were one of the five main food groups. Accordingly, my intake of sugar and saturated fats was shortening my life.
 
The Yolks On Me

When it came to so-called real food, I wasn’t much better. The occasional egg was fine. But too often, I found myself eating as many as Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke.

There were too few veggies and fruit in my diet, too. Granger asked how often I ate these things. I told him several times during the Obama presidency. I just couldn’t remember which term.
 
My doctor handed me a list that was to be my new diet. He said I could change slowly, but change I must. That blood was meant to run through your veins, not take a leisurely stroll every month or so. Tears in my eyes, I thanked him and left.
 
Lingering in the Produce Aisle

As many of you would probably agree, middle-age can be a good place. You like your habits, you have familiar routines which work for you. But sometimes, you need to change, and midlife change is hard, especially when you’ve been eating Skittles for 35 years — in my case, continuously. Still, I went home and tossed out anything that was brightly-colored or had enough cholesterol to clog the Holland Tunnel. Then, sadly, I drove to the supermarket.

(MORE: Death to Twinkie)
 
That’s where I had a remarkable epiphany. I found myself lingering in the produce aisle, discovering that vegetables weren’t born in shiny cans but grew out of the earth. And it hit me. I’d been to a Japanese restaurant once, where they’d made bean sprouts, mushrooms and zucchini, along with the shrimp. I’d liked those things.

So, I bought small portions of each (as well as some teriyaki sauce). These were my veggie versions of gateway drugs. I skipped past the cookies and candies, bought juice and bran cereal, then drove home — after a full-fledged panic attack in the parking lot.
 
Stirred Up by Stir-Fry

Like most of my fears, my anxiety about changing my diet was unfounded. That night, I heated up the pan, added the condiments and stir-fried my vegetables. I took a bite. The sky didn’t grow dark, nor did 666 appear on my dog’s forehead.

Amazingly, I liked my dinner a lot. I imagined my body did, too. And I was certain the next time I visited the doctor, my blood wouldn’t come out in cubes.
 
Back to the Doctor

I won’t lie to you, like most junkies, I’ve slipped a few times. Two days later, after seared tuna and spinach, I ate a Hershey bar for dessert. Without even unwrapping it.

Every week, however, that scenario became more and more rare, as I learned to like glazed carrots, black bean soup and other healthy foods.

But it’s more than that. A month after I changed my ways, I had my blood tested again. Granger gave me a thumbs up and said, "You’re coming along."

I left feeling I’d added a few years to my life, which as a kid wouldn’t have meant much, but now felt fantastic. I thanked my doctor and drove home. But I took a different route than usual. In the old days, I used to have to drive past an Arby’s, KFC and a Baskin-Robbins.
 
Hey, I might feel stronger without all that junk food in my system. But I’m no fool. And, I’m definitely not Superman. So, why take any chances, right?

Peter Gerstenzang writes about rock, pop culture and humor for Esquire, Spin, MSN and Next Avenue