I am a food addict — and even my closest friend didn’t know my secret, so how could you? I look like the woman who won the lottery of life: great job, great family, great life. But here’s what you can’t see about my food addiction: I have wasted so much energy and missed out on so much joy because of my secret obsession with food, especially junk food with its salt, sugar and fat all engineered to make us crave it.
The difficult conversation that pushed me onto the path of dealing with my demons took place on a beautiful day on board a small powerboat off the coast of Connecticut. I was visiting my friend Diane who has been like a sister to me for 15 years. Diane and I have shared everything … we even had a baby together! (When my husband Jim was out of town, and my daughter Carlie decided it was time to come into the world, Diane was right there with me.) But the one topic we had never talked about, the one that felt taboo to me, was Diane’s weight. It was endangering her health and had probably kept her from reaching her full potential as a TV journalist. On that day I knew that years of denial had to come to an end.
“Diane, you have a problem we need to talk about,” was the way I began the intervention that I feared would end our friendship. “You’re fat, and your weight is going to kill you.” Diane looked like I had smacked her, and that was when I knew I had to come clean. She had given me the opening when she started talking about dinner. “It’s so hard to know what to cook when you visit, Mika. On Morning Joe you’re always telling people what to eat and not to eat. You make me so self-conscious about my weight because it’s so easy for you. You’re turning into the food police.”
“Diane, you think it’s easy for me to stay thin like this? Because if you do, you know nothing about the hell I go through every day.” I broke down, revealing the double life I had been leading for years.
With tears in my eyes, I began telling her the ugly truth about myself: “I fight with food every hour of every day of my life.” Diane’s expression softened as my story poured out, and I finally told her the truth about the glaring insecurity I’d had about my body for years — an insecurity that kept me in front of a mirror, and sometimes locked in my closet, while my tears flowed.
I told Diane about the pain and the torment I put myself through to stay thin enough to go on the air. I reminded her of the time I’d been told to lose weight if I wanted a new job. That was right after having a baby, and I looked like any normal woman at 5’7″, 140 pounds! It had been an ugly episode that stayed with me for years. So I starved myself, exercised compulsively and went to bed hungry to whittle myself down to a size 2 and stay there. When I binged it was ugly: salad bowls filled with sugary cereals, a whole pizza, or entire jars of yummy Nutella. Then I punished myself by running even farther the next day and living on lettuce.
I realized that Diane had not a clue about my secret self — the one filled with food and weight struggles that were so similar to hers. Diane had no idea of the damage I had inflicted on my family and myself as I struggled since I was a teenager under this “tyranny of thin.” She had no idea how much she and I had in common. Really, there was only one difference between us: her eating had caught up with her and punished her professionally. Mine had not.
I made Diane an offer: she would work at changing her approach to food and exercise and lose 75 pounds and I would help her do it. I decided to put my money where my mouth was: we would write a book together about America’s obesity crisis, and I would pay her to lose the weight, using the advance from our book. She could do whatever it took: buy a gym membership, see a dietitian, or even go for bariatric surgery. Whatever! I would be paying my girlfriend to start taking care of herself and change her life.
In return, she made me promise I would work at overcoming my obsession with food, gain 10 pounds, and accept the new me. My goal was to be a healthy 135-pound woman, who ate a reasonable meal when she was hungry and didn’t freak out when the scale tipped 120 pounds. I wouldn’t fight against the urge to eat at every turn, leaving myself drained by all that effort. I agreed to go to therapy and reach a healthy weight range of around 135 pounds. I have gained 15 pounds but this is still a work in progress for me. I am more relaxed about what I eat and I no longer deny myself food. Today I am much closer to that goal, and feeling happier and healthier. I have gained two dress sizes and Diane has gone from a size 20 to a size 12.
The dialogue that started between two friends is the one we need to have as a nation in order to turn the tide of obesity and help each other step firmly on the path to health. We need to talk frankly and realistically about the food climate in America, where 2 out of 3 adults are overweight or obese. No more secrets, no more dancing around the issue. Let’s have the conversation.