Anyone who regularly watches MSNBC’s Morning Joe knows that co-host Mika Brzezinski jumps at any opportunity to talk about America’s obesity epidemic.
Brzezinski and her co-anchor, Joe Scarborough, are infamous for their food-related tiffs on air, with Scarborough playing the role of the McDonald’s lover and Brzezinski that of the hyper-disciplined health fanatic. Being a “Food Nazi,” as she was once dubbed by Scarborough, seemed a natural fit for Brzezinski, who has always been upfront about maintaining a strict exercise routine and diet, even publicizing it in a 2010 New York magazine article.
“I'm someone who has really struggled with food, but I've found a good place now,” she said in a preface to a pared-down weekly meal journal. “It's like alcoholism: Every day is a new day. It takes everything in my power, everything inside me to not fall off the wagon."
But Brzezinski wasn’t in a good place.
Now, for the first time, she’s telling all in her new book, Obsessed: America’s Food Addiction—And My Own. You wouldn’t necessarily know it from her kinetic personality and tiny waist, but Brzezinski has been battling a junk-food addiction since she was 13 years old. She has spent much of her adult life consumed with food, operating on a disastrous cycle of binge eating, purging, and over-exercising to maintain an impossibly skinny figure.
Devouring two Big Macs and a large order of fries were her “happiest moments” in high school, Brzezinski writes in Obsessed. “For someone who preaches about healthy eating, that’s a pretty tough thing to admit.”
In college, her idea of “fun on a Saturday night” was loading up on junk food at the local supermarket and eating “an entire box of Entenmann’s chewy chocolate chip cookies,” often after secretly gorging on a large pizza in her dorm room. She would punish herself for the next five days by consuming nothing but water and running like she was training for a marathon. “Eventually, after a period of deprivation, I would break down and go back ... to consuming more calories in a night than I had in the previous week.”
These dangerously unhealthy eating habits stayed with her through her 20s, 30s, and into her 40s. Every time she chastised Scarborough for eating a Big Mac, she was desperately craving one herself. Whether she was deep in conversation at a cocktail party with Colin Powell or talking about the conflict in Syria, her mind invariably wandered to the food platter.
It wasn’t until 2011, when Brzezinski confronted her overweight friend and fellow TV journalist Diane Smith—calling her “fat” and “obese”—that she finally revealed her own food demons. The two made a pact to change their habits. Smith, who was 5’8” and 250 pounds, would try to lose 75 pounds and Brzezinski would make an effort to gain 10 pounds—and seek professional help for her body-image issues. They decided to chronicle their experiences in a book.
From dancing around the “f” word to the root of her various eating disorders, Brzezinski talks to The Daily Beast about Obsessed—and why being healthy is crucial to knowing your value.
The Daily Beast: You grew up in a household where junk food was all but forbidden. Do you think that contributed to your dysfunctional relationship with food?
Mika Brzezinski: I think that the problem sort of entered my system as I grew up in a generation of fast food, fast eating, fast living, and working a lot. I think the science that I bring up in the book points to a collision between our evolving social mores and women working and families operating differently, along with a growing craving for salt, sugar, and fat that has become so distorted that our society just doesn’t eat well. Whether you’re really skinny or morbidly obese, chances are you’re not perfectly healthy.
America is the land of the quick fix, whether through prescription drugs or drastic diets. We avoid making the necessary lifestyle change all too often.
I agree. This book is not about quick fixes. It’s about a journey to health. It’s a long journey, but it’s a very possible journey. And I think out of all the exercise, fitness, and diet books out there, it’s an honest journey.
This should inspire people to come clean on their health. I was really skinny when I started writing this book, but I was not healthy and I certainly wasn’t mentally healthy. And my friend Diane wasn’t healthy either. We vowed to finish this project with her 75 pounds lighter and a little bit healthier, and me 10 pounds heavier and OK with it. And we both have gotten there, although I’m still not completely OK with it. But I’m really working on it.
Your book addresses the link between obesity and food addiction, even though you note that most obese people in America aren’t food addicts. Why, then, do you focus so much on the parallels between the two?
I don’t think every obese person has a food addiction, but I think we have a society that makes it really difficult for someone who’s obese to become healthy again. The problem is really complex, but it has to start with a real conversation about obesity without being afraid of the stigmas associated with it. That’s why when Chris Christie came on our show, when he was launched on the national stage, the first thing I said was, How are you going to get healthy and lose weight? I talked to him as if it was a given that he was obese, and we’re really good friends. But I’m tired of sitting down with people who are morbidly obese and not asking them how they’re doing if they need any help. Because it has to be a living hell, and for the people that I know like Diane, it was a living hell. I don’t know how you can claim to be a close friend of someone and not be honest with them about their health. If that friend has something as serious as cancer or diabetes, chances are you’re going to be there for them. I don’t understand why that doesn’t apply to obesity. So both Diane and I set out to go there and figure out why in this book. I actually think I was a bad friend for not talking to Diane about her weight sooner.
Did Diane ever say that she had wanted to talk to you about your issues before as well?
We both danced around each other’s issues like everyone does. If you look back at any conversation you’ve had with someone that you know and love who is overweight or underweight, ask yourself if you’ve ever asked them how they’re doing. We judge people who are obese; we pay them less; we discriminate against them. Studies show that we subconsciously think they’re slovenly and undisciplined. And yet when we talk to people we absolutely make no attempt to bridge this problem. And I was on the opposite end of the spectrum, because everyone would tell me how great I looked when I was absolutely ill. No one said, God you’re really thin. Shouldn’t you put on some weight? Instead, they all told me I looked fantastic and wanted to know how I got there. Now I’ve told everyone how I got there, and I don’t suggest trying it at home.
What was it like to constantly deprive yourself of food?
I was always hungry. I was always ravenous or craving food or completely obsessed or feeling sick. And I destroyed my metabolism. I wrote Knowing Your Value because I wanted to convey that message to working women and emphasize finding a balance in life. For me to be able to do both of those things I have to get my mind off food. That’s why I’ve come clean. I figure if the whole world knows this about me now, I won’t feel like I’m lying to them. I have felt like a fake, especially when people told me how “amazing” I looked. Because I did not feel amazing. I felt like I was destroying myself and it was kind of a growing, gnawing little crisis inside my soul. And as a mother of two girls, it felt really wrong. So I’m sort of working on getting to a better place by making sure the world calls me out on it if I don’t. Since they call me out on everything else on the Internet, why don’t I just put the truth out there!
Do you think your food issues stem from a lack of confidence in other areas?
Yes, and I know I should be way past that at this point. I’ve come to everything backwards and it has taken me way too long. Let me save everyone a little time: read Knowing Your Value and read Obsessed. I wish I hadn’t wasted so much time. Feeling healthy and good about yourself is so much more rewarding than just feeling skinny.