Patient Stories

Food as Comfort: A Family--and a National-- History

Posted In: Mental conditions Carey Sipp | January 9, 2014 | 08:57 AM

Here’s my theory: The Greatest Generation was set up to have eating disorders, and to then have children and grandchildren with eating disorders. Now, a disclaimer: this assertion is not grounded in science. It stems from what I’ve seen at home and out in the world. And this isn’t about judgment. God knows there is enough of that in the world. It derives from my observations of size, based on my experiences with my own family. I’m concerned about the size of people, the size and nutritional facts of meals out there, and the size of the problem we, as a nation, are facing if we don’t get a grip on eating disorders one person, one family, at a time.

Children of the Great Depression I knew – my dad, mom, stepdad, an aunt and uncle, a few older friends from that era – grew up hungry and afraid there wouldn’t be enough. Their mothers were afraid of not having enough food for their hardworking husbands and children. My father’s mother scraped and saved a penny here, a nickel there; a bite of fatback here, a cup of flour for gravy there.

She would mix the white flour, lard, sugar, and home-grown fruits for pies and sugary preserves. Her family would feast on these foods that we now know have a high glycemic index, meaning that the carbohydrates in them would break down quickly, flooding the bloodstream with sugars and setting up a spike in blood sugar, a surge in insulin, and then a drop in blood sugar that creates a tremendous craving sensation for more and more food. It was a vicious cycle then, but the good news was that back in the 30s, 40s, and 50s, people were required to be more physical-- at least my family was. For my dad there were farm chores to do. Those chores, plus walking to school and other places, burned calories. That helped to balance the blood sugar and kept his weight low until he returned home from World War II. I don’t know what kind of shape he was in then, physically. Emotionally, though, I have heard he was devastated by what he had seen. And glad to be home in one piece. And glad to have his mother’s cooking. He had been missing the sweetness in life; Now it was back in front of him.

Her gallons of sweet tea, made with cup after cup of sugar that mounded at the bottom of a clear glass pitcher and turned into a glucose tolerance test when the hot tea was poured over it, must have tasted wonderful to him after two years of Navy food. He would love that tea for another three decades as again and again its plentiful sugar and caffeine fueled a surge of energy and another drop in blood sugar; another round of cravings, another round of overeating.

Even though the Depression and WWII were decades behind them, the cooking and eating habits from the 20s and 30s drove our family’s need for a table full of the foods to which he was addicted: biscuits and gravy made with white flour, lard, milk, sausage drippings. It was hot and tasty and came from loving hands that wanted to make sure there was never any more hunger in that house.

On many, many levels, food represented love. The food brought on a kind of stupor – a food coma of sorts – that would require coffee and Coca-Cola in the afternoon. For my dad, the Coca-Cola often had several shots of bourbon along with it. The combination over the years led to his adult-onset diabetes. His body was so damaged by the wildly changing blood sugar levels that he required several injections of insulin a day. On top of that, his vision kept changing. An eyeglass prescription never lasted more than a few months before it would stop working. The damage to his vision due to high blood sugar started stealing his sight when he was in his early 40s.

Food and liquor were ultimate comforts; ultimate killers. In his mid-50s, he quit drinking for three months. The doctor told him that if he ever started back again it would kill him. He started back the day before Thanksgiving, 1981, and was dead within 24 hours. The change in his body chemistry was just too much; it was too toxic. He died of a cerebral hemorrhage just three weeks short of his 57th birthday.

Food was an addiction. Alcohol was an addiction. Irregular schedules, some unhealthy relationships, lots of worry and intensity around money; it all caught up with him and his brain – the seat of his soul, the home of his brilliant but troubled mind, the keeper of his painful secrets – could not process the additional poison.

That was thirty-one years ago next month. Since then, we’ve all learned so much more about nutrition, and what’s healthy. Why we need to eat to live instead of living to eat. And yet so many people I know are plagued by the destructive consequences of food as comfort instead of food as fuel.

That big business has a hand in keeping people addicted to food is another story, and one I will write about soon. What is sad to me is that most of us have access to healthy food and access to help in the form of Overeaters Anonymous or any one of a number of free support groups to help us understand what happens when food becomes a Higher Power. Yet most of us don’t take advantage of that help.

I don’t think the Greatest Generation fought so hard for us to be able to have freedom of choice, and then choose to kill ourselves with food.

Quick facts from the Centers for Disease Control:

• Obesity is common, serious and costly
• More than one-third of U.S. adults (35.7%) are obese. [Read data brief [PDF-528Kb]]
• Obesity-related conditions include heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and certain types of cancer, some of the leading causes of preventable death. [Read guidelines]
• In 2008, medical costs associated with obesity were estimated at $147 billion; the medical costs for people who are obese were $1,429 higher than those of normal weight.

Do you have a Personal Story you'd like to share?