Last Night A Pop-Tart Saved My Life: In Praise Of Processed Food In Times Of Crisis

After I was dumped, I forgot how to eat. I had thought I was doing pretty well, considering. Sure, the breakdown of a long-term relationship was devastating at first. But after the crying subsided, I started genuinely to believe it was for the best. The anxious thoughts that had plagued me constantly for the last several months were dissipating. I cut my hair, dyed it purple and bought some trashy clothes. I purchased an electric guitar. I was free at last from the draining influence of fragile male ego. I was doing great. The only problem was mealtimes.

I no longer recognised hunger. And chewing and swallowing felt arduous and unnatural. Plus, everything I tried to consume made me utterly nauseous.

Anecdotally, this is not uncommon. In fact, a 2011 study points to a link between the brain and the gut, suggesting that a person's state of mind can have a direct affect on their stomach. Emotionally taxing events – like a break-up – take their toll on the body, mentally and physically. Even if you think you’re feeling fine, your body may behave otherwise, with the brain and kidneys releasing a bunch of stress hormones, triggering a fight-or-flight response. Because I was pumped full of adrenaline, eating was no longer a priority.

This mechanism was probably pretty useful when we were Neanderthals, but I had a new job to start and wanted to get through a working week without risk of collapse. Plus I needed the stamina to finally give Tinder a try. So what do you do to sustain yourself if you can’t keep anything down? My unlikely saviour was to be found in the cereal aisle.

Pop-Tarts seem to be enjoying a renaissance right now, thanks to the return of Gilmore Girls. But when I was drawn to that box in the supermarket, they certainly weren’t back in vogue. In my frazzled state – running on empty – the childlike packaging, the frosting and sprinkles were suddenly wildly appealing. 400 calories per serving seemed like a benefit. I reasoned that if I had to see food as fuel, it could at least be fun.

So I bought a box, ripped it open when I got home and placed the rectangular treat in the toaster. It didn’t really look like food, but I didn’t care. It went down easily, almost enjoyably. Ultimately, comforting. Finally, I’d found something that didn’t immediately make me queasy. For several weeks, they were all I would consume.

When you’re feeling down, you’re supposed to reach for oily fish and dark green vegetables. Sugar will rot your insides and make you feel sad. It’s easy to forget that we need carbs to function, to power every cell in the body. Containing 16 grams of the white stuff, Pop-Tarts are the antithesis of ‘clean eating’. But far from being dangerous ‘empty’ calories, eating only childish junk food for a short period of time enabled me to keep going and, ultimately, to feel better.
I call up nutritional therapist and meal analyser to the stars, Ian Marber. I’m not going to argue it would have been healthy for my Pop-Tart habit to continue indefinitely but was it really so bad on a temporary basis?

“The thing about junk food,” says Ian, “Is if that’s all you want to eat, you’re not really in a place to take advice. And if that want is for an emotional reason, I can’t really see the point in forcing healthy alternatives on that person just yet.”

He muses that there might have been an element of rebellion behind me reaching for Kellogg’s' infamous toaster pastries. Purchasing something I knew would be ‘bad’ for me could also be seen as an act of comfort. Pop-Tarts certainly weren’t found in my parents’ house when I was growing up. Did it feel good, perversely, to know I was surviving on food that would horrify my mother? Perhaps. But it was also liberating to know that I could get close to my recommended daily calorie intake with just a few trips to the toaster.

Many would see my position as one of weakness. Marber admits my habit would have been worrying had it continued but believes we need to stop shaming people for their dietary choices, particularly ones they make in tough times. If that means surviving on red wine and ice cream for a few weeks, so be it.

“In this age of peak nutrition, the idea that you might fancy something unhealthy is seen as a weakness. But it shouldn’t be, especially if you’re feeling down for whatever reason. I certainly don’t remember eating kale the last time I had a break-up. It was definitely Lindor. It’s all part of the process.”

Looking back, my weeks of eating only Pop-Tarts seem frivolous and bizarre. I haven’t had one since I became able to eat like my old self again. But today, I purchase the familiar blue and pink box from Tesco. I load up the toaster, then press eject and take a bite. The jam burns my mouth, the frosting is sickly, the pastry like cardboard. But I suddenly feel incredibly thankful.
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