When food is painful

The world of a food writer can seem like Candyland. But a new study on food addiction reminded me that it's not

Topics: Obesity, Nutrition, Eating Disorders, Food,

When food is painful

Welcome to Sausage McMuffins Anonymous. Thanks for sharing. Coffee is in the back.

Yesterday, I read about a new study suggesting that sausage, cheesecake and other tasty, fatty foods might actually be addictive — I mean, cocaine-like addictive, where addicts have trouble feeling pleasure without them. Rats, when fed junk food all day long, showed the same kind of chemical changes in their brain that are common with addictions. We’ve seen claims of this sort before — about sugar, about corn syrup — and, while I can’t quibble with the science, it’s simply not reasonable to think that we respond to hot dogs the same way we respond to cocaine. Most of us can enjoy these foods safely in some kind of moderation, just as most can enjoy a drink without being alcoholics. So I filed the story away under “Interesting but not earth-shattering.” But for some reason, the story kept creeping back up on me. I kept thinking about it, and seeing food in the dark light of addiction finally filled me with a confused sadness.

I am an aggressively joyful person. My work is about sharing my love of food, about the magic that can happen between people at table and the magic that can happen in your head when a bite of something amazing transports you. I write about it, I teach cooking, I stick candy in random people’s faces. For me, few things are more joyful, are more powerful than the pleasure of food. And because food is good, because my field is so rife with how food reminds of home, of warmth and love, it’s an occupational hazard to have it all feel a bit romantic after a while. You know: Soup comes with mittens and a hug from Mom. Cake comes with puppies and flowers. I try my hardest to stay out of LaLa Land, but it’s unnerving to be reminded that sometimes, food is not happy but fraught with difficulty and pain. Whether or not “food addiction” truly exists, the act of eating is  troubled — and troubling — for many: those with eating disorders, or the very many who struggle with weight or health.

You Might Also Like

Reading about the addictive food study brought to mind a striking 2006 story by N.R. Kleinfield in the New York Times on diabetes in low-income communities. In it, the reporter asked a woman suffering from diabetes why she didn’t take better care of her condition.

She pointed out that many people in her world were stressed out and depressed. There are other serious health issues, like asthma and H.I.V., the signposts of many poor neighborhoods. Their cobbled-together lives drain residents of their resolve. And so they cede diabetes the upper hand and eat what tastes good to them to counteract the gravity of unhappiness.

“Listen, if I want to eat a piece of cake, I’m going to eat it,” she said. “No doctor can tell me what to eat. I’m going to eat it, because I’m hungry. We got too much to worry about. We got to worry about tomorrow. We got to worry about the rent. We got to worry about our jobs. I’m not going to worry about a piece of cake.”

The simple, private pleasure of sugar and fat in this case is no longer simple (and, given that the diabetes epidemic severely stresses our healthcare infrastructure, that pleasure is no longer private either). Over and over again in the story, the reporter came upon people too tired or too stressed to deal appropriately with their diabetes, and instead, as this woman does, make the conscious choice to compromise their health for this small moment of satisfaction.

“Chocolate cake may be a risk, but tastes good on a bleak day,” Kleinfield writes, breaking my heart with the knowledge that the dark context of suffering is what lets the soft light of a sweet treat shine so seductively. I think a healthy relationship with food recognizes its joys, but also recognizes its appropriate place. It should bring pleasure, maybe even escape from a bad day, but not escapism from a rough world.

I used to teach at a literature camp where I also volunteered to help run the kitchen, teaching students to cook. I did everything there with a sense of wildness, and, buoyed by students excited to learn everything about the world, I tried to make the kitchen a central part of the experience, bringing food into our discussions of Dickinson, teaching the lessons a writer can learn from frying a pan of eggs.

And then one year we learned that one of the students was bulimic. I was distraught. I dated a woman with terrible eating disorders once. We went to culinary school together, which I thought was awfully ironic until I realized that part of how the illness abused her was by causing her to surround herself with food at all times. And so I wondered, painfully, if the food-focused environment I was creating made things harder on our student. Here I was, leading the band, banging out rhythms on trays of pork loins, while she followed up, wild-eyed with polenta she was going to hurt herself with.

A friend came to my moral defense. “No, it’s good. You’re modeling what a positive, healthy relationship with food can look like,” she said. I was thankful for that, but it’s hard to shake the weirdness of knowing that what you find joyful is painful for someone you care about.

But, you know, when I think about it I realize that even for me it’s not always simple. I have struggled with my own weight for years. I was chubby as a child, and when I was a romantically lonely teenager, I nervously counted every fat gram as another step away from having a girlfriend. I had no idea how good I really had it, metabolism-wise, back then. Now, not 17 anymore or even 27, I find myself again learning to stand in new postures to hide my small but growing gut. I wince a little in the mirror. It’s OK. It’s not an obsession. But it’s a reminder that even the purest pleasure I know is always complicated.

Francis Lam is Features Editor at Gilt Taste, provides color commentary for the Cooking Channel show Food(ography), and tweets at @francis_lam.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails
    Martyna Blaszczyk/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 1

    Pond de l'Archeveche - hundreds thousands of padlocks locked to a bridge by random couples, as a symbol of their eternal love. After another iconic Pont des Arts bridge was cleared of the padlocks in 2010 (as a safety measure), people started to place their love symbols on this one. Today both of the bridges are full of love locks again.

    Anders Andersson/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 2

    A bird's view of tulip fields near Voorhout in the Netherlands, photographed with a drone in April 2015.

    Aashit Desai/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 3

    Angalamman Festival is celebrated every year in a small town called Kaveripattinam in Tamil Nadu. Devotees, numbering in tens of thousands, converge in this town the day after Maha Shivratri to worship the deity Angalamman, meaning 'The Guardian God'. During the festival some of the worshippers paint their faces that personifies Goddess Kali. Other indulge in the ritual of piercing iron rods throughout their cheeks.

    Allan Gichigi/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 4

    Kit Mikai is a natural rock formation about 40m high found in Western Kenya. She goes up the rocks regularly to meditate. Kit Mikai, Kenya

    Chris Ludlow/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 5

    On a weekend trip to buffalo from Toronto we made a pit stop at Niagara Falls on the Canadian side. I took this shot with my nexus 5 smartphone. I was randomly shooting the falls themselves from different viewpoints when I happened to get a pretty lucky and interesting shot of this lone seagull on patrol over the falls. I didn't even realize I had captured it in the shot until I went back through the photos a few days later

    Jassen T./National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 6

    Incredibly beautiful and extremely remote. Koehn Lake, Mojave Desert, California. Aerial Image.

    Howard Singleton/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 7

    Lucky timing! The oxpecker was originally sitting on hippo's head. I could see the hippo was going into a huge yawn (threat display?) and the oxpecker had to vacate it's perch. When I snapped the pic, the oxpecker appeared on the verge of being inhaled and was perfectly positioned between the massive gaping jaws of the hippo. The oxpecker also appears to be screeching in terror and back-pedaling to avoid being a snack!

    Abrar Mohsin/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 8

    The Yetis of Nepal - The Aghoris as they are called are marked by colorful body paint and clothes

    Madeline Crowley/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 9

    Taken from a zodiac raft on a painfully cold, rainy day

    Ian Bird/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 10

    This wave is situated right near the CBD of Sydney. Some describe it as the most dangerous wave in Australia, due to it breaking on barnacle covered rocks only a few feet deep and only ten metres from the cliff face. If you fall off you could find yourself in a life and death situation. This photo was taken 300 feet directly above the wave from a helicopter, just as the surfer is pulling into the lip of the barrel.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>