Growing up, Thanksgiving was my favorite holiday, second to Christmas.
More importantly, Thanksgiving was the holiday of pumpkin pie, which I hated. But with pumpkin pie came Cool Whip — we got the name-brand whipped cream for such an occasion — and I got to use as much as I wanted. Most people put one, two, or maybe three dollops on their slimy slice — but me? You couldn’t even see the pie under my mound of Cool Whip.
My obsession didn’t end there. At night, I tip-toed into the kitchen and dipped my finger into the tub of Cool Whip. (Sometimes I would use a spoon but I preferred not to since it would take longer and make more noise.) I sat on the floor like that for a while, wedged between the fridge door in the sliver of yellow light, carefully indulging, being mindful of my technique so the cream looked undisturbed.
When I was a kid, I didn’t see my whipped cream fixation as an issue. I found it funny. I joked that I would marry the man who gifted me whipped cream. (I received a few tubs and I did not follow through with that promise.) It wasn’t until middle school that food started to change for me.
Food addiction is a relatively new field of study, intersecting public health concerns and mental health. There isn’t an official diagnosis in the “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders” (DSM) like there is for substance abuse. Obesity prevalence continues to rise in the U.S. In 2017-18, 42.4% of adults were obese — up from 30.5% in 1999-2000. While some may argue that people are obese because of a lack of willpower or responsibility, these numbers just don’t make sense. People haven’t changed, food has.
But I didn’t know all of that at the time. So on a tawny, vinyl school bus seat, I would peek out the rectangular window as the world rolled by. My 11-year-old hands would rest on my favorite baby blue sweatpants, and my fingers would catch the big sequin star smack-dab on my thigh. And for the first time, I noticed my thighs. I started comparing my body to other girls’ and idolizing thinness. I went from a confident, bubbly elementary student, to an insecure, awkward middle-schooler.
And so, the weight loss attempts began. I woke up at 5 a.m. with my mom and we did home-workouts in front of a muted, flashing TV in the otherwise pitch-dark living room, so as not to disturb my brothers before I got ready for school. I started tracking my food in a fuzzy, lilac Cinderella notebook. My weight didn’t budge.
My mom supported my weight-loss goals but also insisted that I wasn’t overweight. Unfortunately, I was praised for eating all the food on my plate. And then eating seconds. My siblings were picky; I wasn’t. I have fond memories of scraping the shake-and-bake mix off of the foil cookie sheet after dinner. When I was much younger, I loved seeing Santa and bragging about how I finished all the food on my plate. As I got older, I’d eat an entire box of alfredo noodles with cream and butter; or two Hungry Man beer-battered chicken meals; or an entire box of Kraft macaroni and cheese. I love leftovers but I never had them.
I love leftovers but I never had them.
By my sophomore year of high school, I was 5’4,” 168 pounds, and a size 12 in jeans. In hindsight, I wasn’t very large. But I still felt insecure. I knew my eating habits were abnormal and I knew I was technically overweight.
Above all else, I wanted to do things the “healthy” way — by eating right and exercising. There were, however, a few slip-ups. After binge-eating, I would feel tremendously guilty, so I tried not eating for a couple of days. It wasn’t easy getting offered McDonald’s and turning it down. It was also incredibly suspicious since everyone knew how much I loved to eat. There were also three instances that I threw up after eating — with many more attempts. After buffets or decadent takeout meals, I would walk to an isolated area in our three-acre, forested backyard and tremulously slip my finger down my throat. But I couldn’t do it. I was ashamed for considering something so awful and I was ashamed that I couldn’t control myself. I would tear up, lower myself to the ground, and hug myself — desperately grasping to root myself back in reality.
I never considered myself an addictive person. I've never done drugs or smoked, I dislike gambling, and I rarely consume alcohol. But after 12 years on this weight-loss journey, at the age of 27, it dawned on me: I might be addicted to food. I'm not talking about broccoli; I'm talking about pizza and pasta and ice cream and peanut butter and guacamole and hummus. It was this potential addiction that kept me above my ideal weight, which no amount of exercising or intermittent fasting could overcome.