Obsessed with Food

One skinny, one heavy, TV anchors Mika Brzezinski and Diane Smith couldn’t have looked less alike. What was the same: Their days were controlled by what they ate. Here, the two good friends reveal how they wrestled—in very different ways—with their compulsions 

by Judith Newman
mika brzezinski and diane smith image
Photograph: Evelyn Laws

To casual viewers of MSNBC’s Morning Joe, cohost Mika Brzezinski seems the ultimate in newswomanhood: sharp, sleek and always at the top of her game. She’s written best-selling books for women about balancing career and family and getting the paycheck you deserve. And now a book about . . . compulsive eating? Wait. What could this overachieving size 4 jock possibly know about the average woman’s struggles with food?

Plenty, it turns out. In the new book, Obsessed: America’s Food Addiction—and My Own, published by Weinstein Books, Mika reveals that since she was a young girl, food has been her best friend and her fiercest enemy. Growing up in a family in which intellectual rigor and self-discipline were the norm—her father is political scientist Zbigniew Brzezinski, who was Jimmy Carter’s national security -adviser—Mika believed that her compulsion to overeat and overexercise were “too trivial to mention” to her family. So she didn’t, choosing to fight her demons privately. Still, viewers watching her primly lecture her Morning Joe cohosts and guests on the importance of exercise and nutrition may have gotten a clue that there is something a little, well, restrictive about her attitude toward food.

But it was an off-air conversation, during Labor Day weekend 2011, that would change Mika’s life and that of her friend of 18 years, TV and radio personality Diane Smith. The two women, who are too busy to spend much time together, were out boating on Long Island Sound with their husbands. Diane, who then weighed 256 pounds, complained that it was hard to cook for Mika because she’d become too much of a “food Nazi.” What Mika heard Diane say was, “Things are so easy for you when it comes to food, and they’re not for me.” Mika then confessed that she secretly struggled with the desire to overeat. But that revelation was just the beginning of an honest exchange: Mika had long been concerned about the health and career consequences of Diane’s excess weight, and she picked that moment to tell her so.

Now imagine how this would feel: Your thinnest, most seemingly perfect friend says right to your face, “You are fat.” And the biggest surprise? A positive outcome ensued. After a heartfelt discussion, both women decided to change their approaches to eating and to document their metamorphoses in a book. Here are their stories.


MORE: Before writing the book, did you ever talk about your food struggles?
Mika Brzezinski: Never. It was too embarrassing. Here I was, the youngest in this brilliant family, always feeling like I couldn’t keep up—and I had this problem with thinking about food obsessively. No one else in my family had this problem; my mother would always say, “Have some self-discipline, Mika!” I thought eating was something I could control, unlike what I felt was a lack of intellect.

MORE: In the book you describe taking a sleeping pill and later eating Nutella with your hands in the middle of the night. But generally your bingeing had nothing to do with drugs.
My specialty was eating entire boxes of cereal. My husband [WABC news reporter Jim Hoffer] would call me Jethro [from The Beverly Hillbillies] because he would watch me just devour a salad bowl of Cap’n Crunch. And I’d still be hungry after that. At work, if someone brought Dunkin’ Munchkins, I’d eat an entire 25-piece box. At a hotel, while traveling on business, I’d order room service for three people and eat everything. And I had all these weird ways of convincing myself that what I was eating was OK—like, I’d go for just the icing off the cupcake.

MORE: Did other people notice your compulsive eating?
Both my husband and the guy I dated before him have stories of spotting a plate of food in front of me, looking away for 30 seconds and looking back and seeing that everything was gone. Joe [Scarborough, her Morning Joe cohost] talks about a luncheon we went to in Orange County, California. There was some big, gross, breaded chicken stuffed with cheese, along with fried potatoes. Joe looked away for one minute. By the time he looked back, I had inhaled the plate. The entire plate of food.

MORE: The way you tell it, I’m laughing, but it’s not really funny, because if you can do that in 60 seconds, you’re not actually enjoying anything.
No, and it hurts your digestive system. But food is the thing I could count on. Food always loved me back. 

MORE: In the book, you say you tried to be bulimic but weren’t really good at it.
I was terrible. My eyes got really red, and I knew I was hurting my teeth.

MORE: So your eating disorder took other forms.
There were these constant stupid negotiations with myself: “I can eat the Domino’s pizza if I run 10 miles afterward.” That’s what I’d do after bingeing—go for punishing runs. 

MORE: Did you ever get seriously underweight?
Oh yeah, absolutely. And—let me tell you, this is really messed up—that’s when I got the most compliments. But if you examined me closely, I looked my least healthy. My hair was thin, and under the makeup my eyes were red and my face was puffy.

MORE: And yet in the book you say unequivocally that it’s important to be thin for a job in front of the camera. You are not at all critical of the woman who interviewed you for an anchor slot and told you to come back after you lost weight.
She was right. I lost about 15 pounds and really pulled myself together, and then all of a sudden I started getting attention and job offers.

MORE: You say you’ve gained a few pounds since you started the book. Do you have a number on the scale that it upsets you to go over?
Yes. It’s 130.

MORE: How tall are you?
Five foot six.

MORE: So you’re not happy if you weigh 133?
Exactly! [To her assistant] Emily, will you grab the scale out of the master bedroom and bring it out here? We’ll see if I’m happy today. [When Brzezinski sees she weighs 133, she says, “I’m working on believing 133 is right where I should be.”]

MORE: What did you learn by talking to Diane about her eating?
Our professional fortunes were very different because of our weight, but Diane and I were doing the same crazy things. We were both going to the local Price Chopper on Saturday night. We’d fill the cart and then gorge all night. That was my idea of a really good Saturday evening.

MORE: It was such a shocking thing to do, telling a friend she was fat. Yet against all odds, it brought you together.
Confronting Diane really turned out to be an even bigger intervention for me. Because while she went through hell losing 66 pounds, I also had to get help. To write this book, I had to see a therapist, and I realized my problems were worse than I’d ever thought.

MORE: How has writing this book changed your routine?
I made a commitment to be OK with missing a couple of days of exercising, to let myself exercise four or five times a week and not every day. I’m also trying to not kill myself over what I eat.

MORE: What would you tell people who read your book and are struggling with the same obsessive compulsions about food?
[Tearing up] The subject is still so embarrassing for me, but I am just hoping people will read this book and, if they have a problem, seek help. I wish I’d dealt with this problem much earlier, because obsessing about food is a terrible waste of time. I never want my daughters to spend so much of their lives consumed by this.


MORE: Boy, this is quite a story. And I hear you’re not the only one in your family who has gotten healthier.
Diane Smith:
Yes. My husband [Thomas Woodruff, an economist] has lost 45 pounds—and our dog, Chauncy, has lost 10!

MORE: Let’s talk about your eating history. Was food a concern when you were a child?
I have three sisters and a brother, and they didn’t have weight issues. One of my sisters used to wear a rubber band as a belt! But I have been shopping for plus sizes on and off since I was a child. My mother was always putting my dad and me on a diet.

MORE: Were you an emotional eater?
I can definitely trace periods of overeating to tough times. My college boyfriend was killed in a car crash—that’s when I first started reallygaining. And then, when I got downsized from the best job I’d ever had, as a radio talk show host, I gained a lot after that, too.

But once you have one health problem from extra weight, other -problems—and sometimes more weight gain—follow. In my effort to lose weight before I turned 50, Istarted a vigorous gym program and got stress fractures in my feet. So I couldn’t exercise much. And then I had hip problems, too. In 2011, I thought I’d never be able to exercise rigorously again.

MORE: That Labor Day weekend when Mika said you were fat—did you take the anchor of your boat and swing it at her head?
No! At first I was taken aback and very hurt. But she started talking about her own eating issues. I’d often joked about how of course those Jenny Craig spokespeople could lose weight: They were being paid. So that day Mika offered to split the money from writing a book together, and I could use that to lose weight, by having bariatric surgery, going to a personal trainer, whatever I wanted.

Mika and I met while covering stories in Connecticut, but we got to know each other better through her husband, Jim, who was an investigative reporter at the New Haven ABC affiliate where I was a news anchor. We really bonded when she had a baby while Jim was out of town and I was her birth coach.

So how could I be mad? This was a woman I’d been with when she gave birth. And look, I needed a major shake-up. After decades of losing and gaining and losing and gaining again, I needed something drastic. I spent years wearing nothing but black pantsuits and trying to pretend it was fine.

MORE: How did you lose weight?
As an alternative to bariatric surgery, I joined an outpatient -hospital-based program called Take Off. I started in mid-May 2012, and as of March 13, 2013, I have lost 66 pounds. It involves a dramatic low-calorie diet, with two or three protein shakes a day, and now also some vegetables and salad and sometimes a little extra protein, like chicken or fish or an egg.

My goal was to stay on this until I lost 75 pounds, but I may stay on it longer. I needed to break my bad habits and start over. After a couple of months, a nutritionist helps you learn to eat normal foods again. I’ll be working on learning behavior modification and portion control.

MORE: Talk a little about your trainer and your exercise program.
His name is D’Mario Sowah. He is from Africa, and he is amazing. He’s worked with me through the toughest times. I began with him in November 2011, to improve my balance and mobility as well as lose a little weight. In February 2012, I had a total hip replacement and stayed out of the gym for eight weeks. Then I went back to D’Mario and have been training three or four times a week ever since.

When I first met D’Mario, he said the most amazing thing to me about my weight and awful physical condition: “Lay down that burden; that burden is mine to carry now.” I cried. No one had referred to my weight like that before—as a burden I’d been carrying. And yet of course it was.

MORE: Was Mika your cheerleader?
Oh yes. She texted and phoned all the time. She had to travel a lot, so we didn’t see each other for weeks or months at a time. She saw me after I lost 25 pounds and then maybe 40. She had a pretty great reaction. Still, I don’t think living this way is second nature to me. It never will be.

MORE: You’re five foot eight, you’ve gone from 256 to 190 pounds, and you’re still losing. What’s changed for you?
For the first 25 pounds, nobody really noticed except my friends and family. But at 30, 40 pounds, everyone noticed. All the corny stuff that people tell you when they lose weight that I never paid attention to? It’s true. I did this because I wanted to look good, but the most amazing thing is feeling good. I don’t have pain in my knees anymore. I don’t have to take blood pressure medication. I have lots of energy.

And, of course, there’s the shopping. I recently went out with one of my girlfriends, and I did not have to set foot in the plus-size department. My friend had tears in her eyes. She said, “Do you know how proud I am of you?”

This year my husband and I went out for Valentine’s Day, and after years of wearing almost nothing but a black pantsuit, I had on a leopard-print dress. I walked out of the bedroom and said to my husband, “Your wife is back.”

MORE: So even though it was painful, you are glad for Mika’s intervention?
It turned out to be the best thing anyone has said to me since Tom asked, “Will you marry me?”

Next: Mika's Do-Over

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First Published Wed, 2013-04-24 12:28

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