Although the subtitle of William Leith’s The Hungry Years is “Confessions of a Food Addict,” the author’s addiction problems extend far beyond food. At various times Leith also has been addicted to alcohol, cocaine, painkillers and one-night stands.
The book begins with Leith, an English journalist, flying to New York City to interview Dr. Robert Atkins. After a lifetime of weight control problems and failed diets, he is inspired by Atkins to try a low carbohydrate diet. The appeal of low carb is that Atkins presents weight control as a chemical problem instead of a personal one. In other words, obesity is not caused by a person’s lack of discipline, but rather by the insulin rush induced by refined carbohydrates.
Leith describes in painful yet amusing detail his life of binge eating and dieting. He even discusses Cannon’s Conundrum, the theory that dieting causes obesity because each cycle of dieting conditions the body to store more fat. He recounts the history of French fries, reprising Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation. He tells about his own visit to a McCain factory, which reveals the surprising complexity of turning potatoes into consistent, perfect servings of fries.
The Atkins diet works very well for Leith. He loses weight and feels better about himself. Just as he is reaching his target weight, he realizes that the emotional issues that drove him to overeat, get drunk and snort cocaine over the years have not disappeared. Dieting only treats a symptom, not the cause.
Inevitably, Leith relapses into drinking and snorting.
One thing that irks me is that, if you have problems with alcohol or drugs, some people think that you’re just slacking off for a while, having a great time. Just like some people look at a fat person stuffing pizza into his face, and think it’s all about enjoyment. People think greed is all about enjoyment. But it’s not. Greed, as any self-help guru will tell you, is a compensation for pain. Greed is about deprivation… pure masochism, pure self-harm, every mouthful a self-administered laceration.Ultimately it is not food that forces Leith to seek professional help, but rather his other recurring addictions.
Leith takes a very journalistic approach to this memoir, exploring many facets of weight and addiction with interviews and research. He discusses every angle from the fat acceptance movement to the capitalist conspiracy behind low fat diets (carbs are where the money is, so the government and its corporate backers claim fat is the culprit instead). There is enough useful information packed in these pages that an index would be helpful to reference them later.
At the same time it is very personal, as a memoir should be. The mixture of facts and recollections is well-balanced; the book rarely gets bogged down in one or the other. Anyone who has ever been disappointed by the numbers on the bathroom scale should find something useful in The Hungry Years.