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

Published April 1, 2010 12:20AM (EDT)

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.

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.

By Francis Lam

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

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Eating Disorders Food Nutrition Obesity