The Hungry Years: Confessions of a Food Addict


“Hunger is the loudest voice in my head. I’m hungry most of the time.”

William Leith began the eighties slim; by the end of that decade he had packed on an uncomfortable amount of weight. In the early nineties, he was slim again, but his weight began to creep up once more. On January 20th, 2003, he woke up on the fattest day of his life. That same day he left London for New York to interview controversial diet guru Dr. Robert Atkins. But what was meant to be a routine ...

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“Hunger is the loudest voice in my head. I’m hungry most of the time.”

William Leith began the eighties slim; by the end of that decade he had packed on an uncomfortable amount of weight. In the early nineties, he was slim again, but his weight began to creep up once more. On January 20th, 2003, he woke up on the fattest day of his life. That same day he left London for New York to interview controversial diet guru Dr. Robert Atkins. But what was meant to be a routine journalistic assignment set Leith on an intensely personal and illuminating journey into the mysteries of hunger and addiction.

From his many years as a journalist, Leith knows that being fat is something people find more difficult to talk about than nearly anything else. But in The Hungry Years he does precisely that. Leith uses his own pathological relationship with food as a starting point and reveals himself, driven to the kitchen first thing in the morning to inhale slice after slice of buttered toast, wracked by a physical and emotional need that only food can satisfy. He travels through fast food-scented airports and coffee shops as he explores the all-encompassing power of advertising and the unattainable notions of physical perfection that feed the multibillion dollar diet industry.

Fat has been called a feminist issue: William Leith’s unblinking look at the physical consequences and psychological pain of being an overweight man charts fascinating new territory for everyone who has ever had a craving or counted a calorie. The Hungry Years is a story of food, fat, and addiction that is both funny and heartwrenching.

I was sitting in a café on the corner of 3rd Avenue and 24th Street in Manhattan, holding a menu. I was overweight. In fact, I was fat. Like millions of other people, I had entered into a pathological relationship with food, and with my own body. For years I had desperately wanted to write about why this had happened — not just to me, but to all those other people as well. I knew it had a lot to do with food. But I also knew it was connected to all sorts of outside forces. If I could understand what had happened to me, I could tell people what had happened to them, too. Right there and then, I decided that I would do everything to discover why I had got fat. I would look at every angle. And then I would lose weight, and report back from the slim world.
—Excerpt from The Hungry Years

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“[Leith’s] clear, analytically precise, yet emotive prose, at times almost shockingly so, gives us some insight into what it is that makes us so dysfunctional: his honesty, which is by no means shameless, is his salvation. . . . You will want to read bits of The Hungry Years aloud, and relish the expressions of your audience. But it has a purpose. It could become a classic.”
The Guardian (UK)

The Hungry Years [is] an engaging and truly funny book… It is a rare author who can turn a diet into a comic epic.”–The Globe and Mail

“Hilarious, self-lacerating…a superb book”
—Jon Ronson, author of The Men Who Stare at Goats

“Brilliant. . . . Darkly funny, at times disturbing, often sad, brutally honest. . . . [Leith] takes us on a first-
person rollercoaster ride of bingeing, diets and failed relationships. . . . Touching, evocative and deep.”
The Toronto Star

“We like William Leith. We like him when he licks clean a plate of congealed gravy. We like him with crusty mashed-potato stains on his lapels. We like him when he chugs coffee creamer and spoons down an entire jar of peanut butter, and when his T-shirts are so tight on his hot, swollen torso, it feels like rolling on a condom. He’s a flinchingly frank and funny feeding-frenzied master of the kamikaze confessional.”
The Georgia Straight

“Frank and often embarrassing, The Hungry Years is a near addictive read that will have you chuckling, shuddering and screaming in frustration, sometimes all at the same time.”
The Gazette (Montreal)

“Leith dissects his cravings with exquisite precision. It’s the kind of book you read at one gulp.”
Edmonton Journal

“Leith brings a cool wit to his discussion of a super-hot topic. . . . [He] writes about food addiction the way Hunter Thompson wrote about drugs and politics, with a hallucinatory desperation, a feverish imagining.”
San Francisco Chronicle

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781592401550
  • Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 9/22/2005
  • Pages: 304
  • Product dimensions: 5.78 (w) x 8.54 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

William Leith is one of Britain’s best-known journalists. He has written about subjects as divergent as cosmetic surgery, Palestine, Hollywood directors, and drugs. He writes regularly for the Guardian, the Observer, and the Daily Telegraph.

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Read an Excerpt

The Fattest Day of My Life
I wake up on the fattest day of my life, 20 January 2003. I am just over 6 feet tall, and weigh ... how much? I step on the scale and off it very quickly, to limit the damage. 236 lbs. At best! My bathroom floor slopes slightly, and I have positioned the scale carefully to ensure the smallest possible reading.
236 lbs. Waist size: 36. This is how I feel: light-headed, shaky, with a raw sensation, almost a pain, just below my ribs. I can feel the acid wash of heartburn in my gullet and the gurgle of juices in my guts.
I splash water on my face.
Hunger is the loudest voice in my head. I'm hungry most of the time. I also feel bloated most of the time. I am always too empty, and yet too full. I am always too full, and yet too empty. Last night I ate three platefuls of mash and gravy. I also had chicken and vegetables. I can barely remember the chicken or the vegetables. The mash was fluffy, starchy. I could not relax until it had all gone. Then I licked my plate clean. I picked the plate up and licked the starch residue and congealing gravy. It tasted delicious, vile, shameful. People sometimes ask me why I have crusty stains on the lapels of my jacket or the bib area of my shirt.
My girlfriend said, 'I hate it when you do that.'
'I thought you thought it was funny.'
'No, I hate it.'
'It's a tribute to your cooking.'
'No, I hate it.'
Now it's early, and I want toast. God, I hope there's some bread in the kitchen. God, I hope there's some sliced bread in the kitchen. I really don't want to do any slicing. In the morning, with low blood sugar, it's like slicing a stone with a long, bendy razor blade. I could easily have an accident. I swing myself out of bed, my belly tight and sore under my T-shirt. When I was slim, I slept naked, but now I dress for bed, or rather don't fully undress; I wake up damper, hotter, hungrier. My hunger frightens me. The fatter I get, the more I want to eat. The fatter I get, the more comfort I need. Right now, I want thick slices of warm white bread, crispy on the outside, with butter soaking into the middle.
My girlfriend is sitting on the sofa, smoking her second cigarette of the day. This is seven-thirty in the morning. She has a serious addiction. She hates the fact that she smokes. She knows how hard it is to quit, but that's not the problem. She's quit before. But when she quits, she always goes back to smoking. In some deep psychological place, she needs to be a smoker. It's about her childhood, about protesting, about punishing herself. It's all mixed up with her identity. As a non-smoker, she feels like someone else, and that scares her.
'First of the day?' I say, even though I can see there's already a butt in the ashtray.
'Unfortunately not.'
In the kitchen, there is most of a loaf of sliced bread, and — yes! — the butter has been left out all night, so it will be soft enough to spread. When I was a kid, when I had my worst hunger, I hated cold butter. Later, it didn't bother me so much — I was patient enough to pare off thin slices, which I would arrange carefully on the toast. Then I would wait until the butter had melted, something I can't imagine now.
Now I'm in a hurry. The bread is brown. Damn. Still, I put two slices in the toaster, and, while I'm waiting, I take another slice from the loaf, butter it, fold it over, and eat it in three bites. I pop the toast, to see if it's nearly done, but it's not — nowhere near — so I butter another slice, and try, and fail, to eat it slowly. Now, when I pop the toast, it is slightly crisp, and slightly warm, so I take a slice, butter it, eat the disappointing, mushy result, and put another slice in the toaster. And then I realise I should have put the second slice in the toaster before I ate the first. As usual, I am falling behind.
I am in a toast frenzy. I have an urge, like in the Burger King ad, in which 'urge' is an integral part of the word 'Burger'. Although, of course, 'urge' isn't an integral part of the word 'toast'. But I am aching for toast. It's like a Mac Attack. (I have actually suffered from Mac Attacks.) It's like a nicotine fit. It's like the feeling you get in a coke-snorting frenzy, when you say, 'Shall we, um, do another line?' and the reply is, 'We've just done a line.' Please believe me when I say that I am not a coke fiend, have not been one for years. I know about willpower. Looking at the toaster, glaring at it, listening to the buzz of its little engine or whatever, I stop for a moment to make a cup of instant coffee, and ask my girlfriend if she wants any toast.
'No thanks,' she says. She never eats breakfast.

I open the fridge. Nothing for me in here. Tomatoes, bacon, eggs, salad vegetables. On the worktop next to the fridge, there is fruit in the fruit bowl. At the moment, I am not interested in any of these things. I am like a gay man looking at a girly magazine. I want bread, cereal, croissants, bagels. I could eat a baked potato, or some pasta, or some fried rice left over from a Chinese or Indian takeaway.
This actually crosses my mind. Might there be fried rice in the house? Cold fried rice, the grains clumped together, sitting on a bed of congealed fat? In a silver takeaway carton? Once I saw a show, possibly an episode of Trisha, in which a man had got fat because he ate leftovers from Indian meals with his toast in the morning. I love Trisha.
In any case, there is no fried rice in the house. In my heart, I already know this. (Some famous addict once said that a true coke addict knows when there is cocaine in the house, always, and cannot stop snorting until all the cocaine has gone. Well, I always know when there is fried rice in the house.)
And now, my breakfast is ready. Two slices of buttered toast. No plate. I eat standing up. These days, I do a lot of eating standing up. People seem to disapprove. Perhaps that's why I do it. I take a sip of my instant coffee — my girlfriend's brand, a brand which is supposed to give more money to the growers, although I'm not absolutely convinced. It is 'ethically sourced'. It scalds my mouth. I eat the first slice of toast, munching through it like a praying mantis eating a leaf. Then I eat the second slice. And, for a moment, I'm in a bad place — already bloated, but not yet sated. Too full. Too empty. Clouds of self-disgust are gathering on the horizon.
At least I haven't got a hangover. All I have is a slight memory of the hungover state — a phantom. My head still feels slightly fuzzy and sore when I wake up. This is the morning of my twentieth day without alcohol. I used to have a drink problem. Now I might and might not have a drink problem. We'll see. Apart from soft drugs, I am drug free. I am in a monogamous relationship, so I do not feel a constant urge to flirt with women. In any case, I'm too fat for this kind of behaviour. That's all in my past, I think. When you get fat, these sorts of opportunities are no longer open to you. When you get fat, people find you a lot less attractive.
What happens to me is this: I get fat. Then I get fatter and fatter, over a period of years, until I'm fatter than I've ever been. Then I get slim again. But when I get slim, I'm never as slim as I was the time before. And when I get fat, I'm always fatter than I was the time before. Right now, at 236 lbs, I am close to obese. Another month, I'd say, and I'll be obese.
Perhaps there will come a point, perhaps quite soon, when it is just too late. Perhaps when I cross the border from fat to obese I will be stuck, never again able to claw my way back to slim. I'll be a lifer. Might this happen? It happened to Orson Welles, to Sidney Greenstreet, to Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle. Big sad men, communicating their pain slowly, silently, pound by pound. It happened to John Belushi, to John Candy, to Chris Farley. It looks like it's happening to Marlon Brando, to John Goodman, John Prescott, Johnny Vegas. It's almost certainly happening to Robbie Coltrane. Coltrane, a decent actor, who, by being fat, has ruled himself out of contention as a top-dollar leading man, who could never be James Bond, but who was, instead, a fat, smirking James Bond villain, and who ended up as Hagrid, the fat wizard in Harry Potter, gained an average of 14 lbs a year for the best part of a decade. What was he trying to tell us? I once tried to interview Coltrane about his weight gain, and it was one of the most difficult interviews I've ever done. Did he talk about his weight? A little bit, maybe. Did he want to say how he felt? Much, much less. The feelings were locked up in an oubliette deep inside his brain. Fat people are not like coke fiends or alcoholics, who sometimes like nothing better than talking about their problems. With a fat person, there is an elephant in the middle of the room, and nobody's allowed to mention it.
Fat Shower
I am fat. Therefore everything I do is fat. This morning I take a fat shower, squirming around in the suds like an oversized cherub. Fatly, I towel myself dry. This is not like the towelling-dry of a slim person. Fat people absorb water like sponges. Fat people sweat more. Fat people don't want to walk, half-naked, out of the bathroom to a place that is less hot and steamy. Fat people don't like being exposed. Fat people take their clothes into the bathroom, so that they can emerge, magically, fully dressed, if a little damp and uncomfortable. Fat people wear fat clothes. Right now, I tend to wear tight jeans, and I tuck my shirt in, to advertise the extent of my fat belly. If I were balding, I'd be the kind of man who gets a haircut, rather than the kind who brushes hair over the bald patch. I know that the next stage, wearing loose, baggy clothes, will be the end. When you 'Go Floaty', you have admitted defeat. Somewhere, there is still some fight left in me.
And when I pull my T-shirt over my hot, swollen torso, it feels like rolling on a condom. And when I stand on one leg to put on my sock, I feel a twinge. I am creaky.
And when I walk out of the bathroom, my girlfriend says, 'Don't tuck your shirt in. I've told you before.'
I smile, a rictus grin.
She says, 'It just bulks you out.'

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 10, 2006

    Your fat friend wants to chat with you

    This is by no means a self help book. But it helped me nonetheless because the author expresses his most self- loathing feels about being fat, and I can relate. He knows it's not OK to be fat, and it's not easy to be thin. There may be some leads in here that you haven't yet explored, but that's not the point. The point is to share, know you're not alone, and keep trying.

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