On TLC’s ‘Freaky Eaters,’ weird food addictions come with a price

When we got wind of a new show on TLC called “Freaky Eaters,” we couldn’t resist. Based on the UK show of the same name, the premise is fairly simple: Take people who have bizarre eating habits and rehab them. In 22 minutes.

By “freaky,” the producers aren’t always referring to adult picky eaters, men and women who find textures and flavors of most foods unpalatable to the point of throwing up if they eat, say, a tomato or a piece of meat.

The people profiled on this show have issues with specific foods or food groups, always with a psychological component -- the young man who has devoured nothing but pizza since he dropped out of volleyball; the father of two who finds safety in eating at least three cheeseburgers -- and nothing but cheeseburgers -- a day; and the woman who, after getting divorced, turned to sugar to console herself, gradually working it into an all-day, everyday thing. (In the UK version, people are addicted to things like brown sauce, Spaghetti Hoop -- what they call SpaghettiOs across the pond -- and Yorkshire pudding. But really, who isn’t addicted to Yorkshire Pudding?)

This being the TV world, by the end of the TLC show new foods are consumed (including mushrooms!), relationships restored and the future doesn’t look so bleak after all. In other words, everything is wrapped up in a nice, neat bow.

We asked one of the show’s co-hosts, fauxhawk-sporting psychotherapist Mike Dow, if the food addicts profiled are offered any kind of therapy or support, since we’re guessing downing hundreds of pizzas in a year doesn’t happen without emotional baggage.

He said he recommended a 12-step program to the woman addicted to sugar (she took him up on it) and added that others are given counseling recommendations as well.

“For other people, if they were local,” he said, “I did a couple of therapy session follow-ups in my office and then gave them referrals. I did make sure every person had a follow-up and referrals to help with their progress, and we made amazing progress with every person.”

Since subjects are solicited for the show, they obviously want to change, but Dow says they don’t always realize the ramifications of their addictions, such as ill health and strained relationships. For that there is the shock moment, where Dow and his co-host, nutrition specialist J.J. Virgin, drive a truck into a driveway and unload hundreds of hamburger cartons, or stack up mountains of pizza boxes, to force people to confront their bad eating habits. We particularly liked the fake grave covered with hundreds of pounds of sugar.

“I think the message of the show is that food can be an addiction,” Dow said, “like cocaine or alcohol. But people don’t understand that food can be a drug of choice too, and you have to treat it as an addiction. But they can see that there’s hope, and that’s important for people who are stuck in feelings of hopelessness and think there’s no way out.”

While many of us have had those stuff-the-feelings-down-with-a-pint-of-brownie-fudge-ice-cream moments, fewer have full-blown food obsessions that interfere with everyday life. But Dow thinks there may be more people in the middle ground than we think who often use food as a coping tool.

“When you consider that two-thirds of Americans are overweight, I think there are a lot of people out there who do have a problem,” he said. “Hopefully, we will see things like people increasing meaningful relationships and decreasing the importance of food, and adding purpose and pleasure to their lives.”

-- Jeannine Stein / Los Angeles Times