Turning orange

Raw carrot abuse is nothing to laugh at.

Published January 28, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

At first I thought it might be a joke: a research paper on "raw carrot abuse," by one Ludek Cerny, in the venerable British Journal of Addiction. Perhaps Volume 87 contained an April first
issue, and the British Journal of Addiction was taking the piss, as they say over there. Or perhaps it was a joke played upon the British Journal of Addiction by someone pretending to be Ludek
Cerny of the Apolinarska 4 Psychiatric Clinic in Czechoslovakia.

Because I did not want to stay up until midnight (9 a.m. Prague
time) to shout "Ludek Cerny?!" to faraway Czech-speaking clinic employees, I asked around among my friends. Very
soon, much sooner than I expected, I located a domestically based carrot addict.

The woman prefers to keep her identity secret, but if you ever run
into her, she will have a hard time doing this, for her palms and soles have, as she puts it, "an orangey cast," and the rest of her has a subtler yellow-orange "QT" tinge. The reason for this, according to one journal article, is that the palms and soles have a thicker "horny layer," and carotene (which gives carrots their color) has an affinity for the horny layer. This was the first I'd heard of the horny layer, and I made a mental note to locate mine and take it out for a spin some Saturday night.

Carotene also has an affinity for fat, so carrot addicts sometimes have orange bellies, breasts and buttocks. As befits a carrot addict, the woman I spoke with -- let's call her Dotty -- has very little fat, and so she has been spared this peculiar if visually striking fate. (Comforting note: you need to eat at
least four to eight pounds of carrots a day before any part or layer of your personage turns orange.)

Since 1976, Dotty has been consuming 10 or so pounds of carrots a day, which she buys in 50-pound bags from a horse stable in Burbank. This means that altogether she has consumed about 87,000 pounds of carrots. If you laid those carrots end to end, they would not come anywhere near to circling the globe, but you have to admit it's a lot of carrots.

Dotty's habit began when she joined Weight Watchers. Carrots were one of the foods participants could eat unlimited amounts of. She is a compulsive eater, and carrots allow her to continue her compulsive eating but not gain weight. Why not some other vegetable? I asked her, one that does not orangify the horny layer? She has considered this. Tomatoes she finds too messy (besides, the lycopene in them can, if you eat huge amounts, turn you red); celery is too bland and cauliflower too expensive.

One of Cerny's carrot-abusing patients got hooked on carrots after quitting smoking. His wife had advised him that it was necessary to replace the cigarettes with something, and he found that, indeed, carrots helped him forget about cigarettes, and soon he was up to five bunches a day, a habit eventually brought under control by an East-European carrot shortage.

Dotty categorizes her dietary habit as a compulsion rather than an actual addiction. However, Ludek Cerny theorizes in his paper "Can Carrots Be Addictive? An Extraordinary Form of Drug Dependence" that a true chemical dependence might be involved. He cites as evidence a withdrawal syndrome "so intense that afflicted persons get hold of and consume carrots even in socially quite unacceptable situations." As an example, he cites the ex-smoker, who "felt compelled to eat the carrots he had bought on his way home on the train."

I have always thought of Prague as a freewheeling, liberated city, but apparently it's not. Apparently it's the kind of place where a man can't eat carrots on a train.

Cerny's other example better fits the standard profile of socially unacceptable addictive behavior. The patient, a 38-year-old Prague nurse, resorted to stealing to support her habit -- although not from people. While visiting the racetrack with her sister, she would sneak off to the stables and steal bags of carrots from the horses. This same woman would also "preserve her carrot peelings as an emergency reserve." In a similar vein, Dotty confided to me that in December she stockpiled 100 pounds of carrots in the event that Y2K problems interfered with her supply.

Dotty freely admits that carrots rule her life. "I think about travel," she told me. "How would I handle the absence of carrots?" She got the chance to practice recently, when she traveled to a reunion in Chicago. "I said to my daughter, I need you to make me some carrots, and when you pick me up at the airport, please have them with you because I won't have been able to eat them on the plane." (Unlike like the raw carrot abusers described in Cerny's paper, Dotty takes her carrots cooked -- microwaved with vinegar, Sweet'n Low and I Can't Believe It's Not Butter.)

To date, no one has succeeded in isolating an addictive substance in carrots. Part of the reason no one has succeeded in doing this, I would wager, is that no one has tried. Who is going to give researchers hundreds of thousands of dollars to study carrot addiction? They would have to go to the racetrack and win it, or steal it from the horses. In the meantime, whether Dotty is an addict or just a really big carrot fan, she's not interested in quitting: "I would rather be thin and yellow than fat and pink."

By Mary Roach

Former Salon columnist Mary Roach is the author most recently of "Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal." Her previous books include "Stiff," "Spook" and "Packing for Mars."

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