Stuffed: Confessions of a Compulsive Overeater

Fat or thin, supersize or average, I'm still—and will always be—addicted to food

Hello, my name is Denise and I'm addicted to food.

It only took me 50 years to learn that no one dies of hunger between lunch and dinner.

I've surrendered 88 pounds and maintained that loss for over ten years. But, fat or thin, supersize or average, I'm still—and will always be—addicted to food.

Some of you may think, "She calls that addiction? I'm a real addict, hooked on drugs/alcohol/sex/gambling. What wimp considers eating an addiction?" And you'd be almost right: I haven't lost my kids, my home or my job; I haven't broken the law, been incarcerated or ruined my life.

Not yet, that is.

A recovering drug addict can go cold turkey on drugs and alcohol. Recovering gamblers can avoid those places and people that trigger their addiction. But I still have to eat. Three times a day, I have to face my addiction.

I've gotten just as wasted from overly processed, sugary, fatty, salty foods as you have from drugs. I've passed out in a food coma. I've lied and stolen from others—it's just as bad to steal Halloween candy from a child as it is to steal money from your boss.


I've tossed the leftovers in the garbage, only to return, hours (maybe minutes) later, to scrape off the ick and gobble down the food. Or, more honestly, to gobble down the garbage.

At fast-food joints, I've pretended that I was ordering for four or five people; I've helped clear the table at a dinner party so I could hide in the kitchen and finish what was left on the plates. I've asked at restaurants, "Are you going to eat that?" and practically licked a friend's plate clean. I've spent the night at a boyfriend's, raiding his refrigerator after midnight and nearly dying of shame in the morning.

Once, I was supposed to bring a pumpkin pie to a family Thanksgiving. Instead, in my car, I ate the pie like a cookie and had to return to the store several times for more. I inhaled them all. I ended up bringing flowers.

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You say you eat when you're hungry and stop when you're full? What is this "full" about which you speak? When you're an addict, words like "full," "moderation" and "willpower" have no meaning. I ate because the food was there. Just finished a meal? Who cares? My cue was the way food looks and smells. I might eat five baskets of bread in a restaurant, but, if it still looks appealing or smells intoxicating, I'd ask the waiter for a sixth. Buffets were the worst, because I wanted my money's worth. I will eat until I'm sick, but still go back for more.

When friends would ask, "Do you really want another doughnut?" I thought, "I'll show you!" Though I never did figure out how eating a dozen doughnuts hurt them, not me.

You don't lecture people when they're high—you wait until they're sober. So why do you think you can talk sense to someone addicted to food—high on sugar or white flour, one step from a food coma—and expect them to listen?

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Needless to say, my food addiction wreaked havoc on my relationships. You may have thought I was listening to you, caring and supportive, but inside I was obsessing, "What and where do I want to eat next?"

Life's problems, if not solved, could at least be forgotten with the help of a gallon of ice cream or an entire pizza. Or, more accurately, a gallon of ice cream and an entire pizza (or two). People could disappoint me; food never did. I ate whether bored, angry, elated, tired, happy, frustrated, lonely, celebrating. And, like most addicts, along with the food, I stuffed down the feelings I didn't want to deal with.

My addiction took years to fully develop. After the Depression, my parents thought no baby could ever get enough food. In pictures, my arms and legs look like stuffed sausages. As a toddler, I noticed if other slices of birthday cake were larger than mine. And I complained loudly!

My father spent his formative years in an orphanage, and the habits he learned there affected our kitchen table decades later. Dad said that, in the orphanage, if you blinked, the food was gone. Therefore, you had to grab all food as quickly as possible, and shove it directly down your throat. This fostered my proclivity for speed eating, for always cleaning my plate (even the garnish) and for disregarding basic biological cues like hunger.

In my early 30s, I survived a horrible car accident. My throat was paralyzed, so I had feeding tubes up my nose, and I never slept. When I was wheeled out of intensive care, pathetic and trembling, my grandmother saw me and said, "You look fabulous! You're so thin!"

I left the hospital and slowly progressed from broken to healing. I'd place a mound of chocolate chips on the table. If I could get a chip from the table to mouth using my weak, injured hand, I could eat it. At first, I had no mastery of movement; gradually, I could aim slightly, and bear the weight of one chip. By the end, I was gobbling up fistfuls of chocolate. If I needed food as a reward, so be it.

I married. At night I'd wake my husband. "Don't you hear it?" I'd whisper.

"What?" he'd ask.

"The pan of brownies. Calling from the kitchen," I'd say.

During our seven-year marriage, we traveled extensively. In Chichen Itza, I climbed to the top of the Temple of Kukulkan. It was an amazing vista, and I felt great.

We returned home and developed our photos (remember that?). I asked my husband, "Who's this atop the Mayan pyramid?"

"You," he answered.

I was shocked. I wasn't just fat, I was obese.

It was time to face my addiction. For me, addiction meant that food controlled me; I didn't control my food. I joined a support group of like-minded food junkies, learned portion control, and cut sugar and white flour from my diet. Not "mostly," not "usually," but absolutely and completely.

I treasure my intellect and usually approach life rationally. But no matter how many times I tried to deconstruct my food addiction and think my way out of it, I failed. I talked ad nauseam to therapists, friends and strangers, about the what and wherefore of my compulsive overeating, but it never, ever helped me conquer my addiction to food. However, as a card-carrying adult, no longer could I blame my parents, my divorce, a car crash or a broken fingernail. The past may have been responsible for triggering my disease, but I am responsible for my cure.

I now eat three meals a day, weighed and measured, with no snacking in between. I believe that processed white flour and sugar are addictive substances, and cause us to crave ever more. (And, YES: Honey, brown sugar, molasses, agave, glucose and fructose all count as sugar.) For me, one bite of sugar or white flour is too much, yet all the sugar and white flour in the world is never enough.

When I stopped putting these things into my body and I stopped overeating, the cravings died down. They haven't disappeared completely, but now they are so much easier to ignore: quiet chirps rather than the ravenous roars they'd been.

Each winter, I am astonished that last year's outfits still fit. Clothes wear out or become dated; I no longer own separate fat clothes and thin clothes. My physician was stunned by the drop in my blood sugar and cholesterol levels. I was stunned at how much easier it became to exercise, take the stairs or even remain awake after a meal.

I still (and hope to always) attend meetings with my support group. Friends say, "You look great! Why do you need to keep going?" That, to me, is akin to telling a diabetic, "You feel better, so now you can stop the insulin." The diabetic isn't cured by insulin, nor am I "cured" of my addiction. I'm recovering, one day at a time. One wrong bite, and I know I'd spin out of control again.

It may seem that I'm following a draconian regimen, and you'd be right. However, paradoxically, being so structured with my food means I can be that much freer with my life. I'm not continuously obsessing about food. If my mind wanders in food-related directions, I tell myself: You don't eat again until next mealtime, so you might as well stop thinking about it now.

Usually, I do. And life, which was once concerned with the injustice of my slice of cake being smaller than yours, is now about so much more.

Tags: well being