I coped through the pandemic with a diet of junk food. Now I'm regretting it | Emma Brockes

Looking back, I believe it was the key lime pie that did it. In the first flush of the first lockdown I decided it was my right – no, my duty – to lift my spirits by eating as much junk food as I possibly could. Cakes, muffins; oh my god, so much sausage.

I’d throw an entire kielbasa into the frying pan, smother it in baked beans and round it off with a pound of cheddar. But it was the pies, I’m convinced, that pushed me over the edge. I put the key lime on automatic reorder at Whole Foods and polished one off, single-handedly, every two weeks.

A year later and after a delayed annual medical, my doctor tells me, very sternly, that my cholesterol levels are insane. It is a side discussion while Covid rates remain high, but the ancillary health issues of this past 12 months will be felt for years to come. It’s not just diet. We have been more sedentary, sloth-like, demoralised, sleep-interrupted, stressed, angry and afraid. The Zoom schedule alone has probably shaved a year off most parents’ lives.

At 45, I am just about young enough to course-correct without drugs, but my doctor isn’t messing around. You have six months, she says, to turn the ship around.

My first response is to feel weirdly, bracingly thrilled. I can totally do this. The buzz of self-denial will be greater than the self-indulgence preceding it. Not only will I bring my cholesterol down, I’ll bring it down faster and more definitively than anyone in history. Overnight, my supermarket shop, heavy on the ham, light on the lentils, does a complete 180. Nitrates be gone! Wholewheat pasta, dried apples, even raisins, that consolation prize of the snack world that never fails to depress – into the basket they go!

I buy a spiralizer to make courgette “pasta” and an olive oil spray gun, because what’s turning over a new leaf without new accessories? And while the switch to skimmed milk doesn’t go well – is there any actual milk in this? – everything else is a breeze. I’ve got this.

For many of us, the eating patterns adopted during the worst days of Covid relied heavily for their power on nostalgia. People reported going back to the staple comfort foods of their childhood, hence my sudden interest in eating baked beans. I bought chocolate sauce, which I don’t even like, and smothered it on high-end vanilla ice-cream, ploughing my way through entire bowls of the stuff each night with the grim determination of someone “rewarding” themselves.

I bought mini Twixes and packs of Skittles, so that a friend, opening my kitchen cupboard one day, shrieked: “This is like visiting my grandmother’s house!” I should have known things were out of hand when my McDonald’s order crept up from a Quarter Pounder with cheese and large fries, to a Quarter Pounder with cheese, large fries and – come on, as if that’s going to do the job – two cheeky kids’ cheeseburgers on the side.

Those days are over. Now I roast mountains of vegetables. I make salmon fishcakes. I do a lot with sardines. My children have grown tired of saying, “Ew, what’s that smell?” when they walk into the house. Making turkey meatballs with almond flour instead of breadcrumbs and suddenly I’m the person I never wanted to be, the gluten-free arsehole with the range of dietary requirements that seem less like a health than a moral thing. I throw around handfuls of flax so all my food has the unnerving, granular edge of something being eaten on a beach.

It’s the lentils that break me. In the Instant Pot, I make enough to freeze and last for three months (“Ew, what’s that smell?”). Before Christmas, I would have dropped in a block of cheese the size of my apartment, or at the very least dumped in a mountain of salt. Now it’s just the lentils, with their lentilly brown taste. The recipe says they’re great unadorned and don’t need extra flavouring. I wonder if this person has ever tasted bacon.

Still, I haven’t cracked yet – apart from half a hash brown snatched from the leftovers on my kid’s plate and shoved into my mouth like something from Oliver Twist. Saying goodbye to deli meats was harder than sending my kids off to school, but they’re trying to encourage me. “You can do it!” they say cheerfully, and with the child’s love of systemised thinking, promise, “You can eat anything you want on your birthday.”

I think about my birthday menu a lot these days. Here it is: a fry-up for breakfast; McDonald’s for lunch; curry for dinner; lo mein for last orders; and frozen key lime pie at strategic points in between. Only nine months to go.


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