JJ, Kelly

TLC's Freaky Eaters returns Sunday (at 10/9c) focusing on its freakiest eater yet: Nikki Myles, who consumes 3,000 calories' worth of cornstarch a day, going to extremes to hide it from her family (she keeps a spare bag right next to the spare tire in her trunk!). Returning for Season 2, Dr. Mike Dow and nutritionist JJ Virgin attempt to get Nikki off cornstarch for good by giving her a crash course in treatment that includes confronting her with a giant, dumped bag of cornstarch to represent the volume that she's consumed over the course of six months.

While the freak-show factor runs high (check the show's title!) and the shock-treatment stuff is outlandish, what makes Freaky Eaters rewarding is the humanity at its heart — the viewer soon realizes he or she isn't watching a freak, but a human being struggle with what is effectively an addiction. That hook-you-in-and-break-you-down effect is exactly what the show's going for, according to Virgin who, along with Dow, stopped by the TVGuide.com office to discuss the show, their subjects and what grosses them out about their job.

Nikki's story was particularly tragic, having lost her 4-year-old son and spiraled as a result. I really felt for her.
Mike Dow: You can see where emotional eating starts and how it can quickly spiral into food addiction. She has pica, so it started as something biochemical and that created this perfect storm, where she needed professional help and it was not clear cut. She's gone to doctors who say, "You should probably quit eating so much cornstarch." But how does she do that?
JJ Virgin: There really isn't a place for these people to go get help. They're kind of in a gray area that no one knows what to do with.
Dow: It's not eating disorders and it's not out- /inpatient based addiction, which focuses mainly on drugs and alcohol and now a little bit sex. There's kind of disordered eating, but it's not an eating disorder, per se, so these people really don't have a community. I think every single person on the show we've treated has been to countless professionals with no help.

What do you think about the show's title? "Freaky eaters" obviously isn't a clinical term.
Virgin: It gets people to watch. I want to be proactive about the world and have people tune in for the sake of their health, but that's not something people necessarily want to watch. The great thing about this is people tune in for the freak factor and then stay because they're like, "Do I do that?" We all have a little bit in us. Everyone's got some eating habits that are a little crazy.
Dow: The cornstarch eater, Nikki, you felt for her. Her 4-year-old died while her husband was holding him.

It seems like the "freaky eating" the show focuses on involves unhealthy foods. Do you ever see this kind of behavior performed with stuff that's actually good for people?
Virgin: The first thing I'd say is that too much healthy food is unhealthy. But as much as we'd like to have the guy who's addicted to broccoli, he hasn't shown his face yet. I think someone applied that was addicted to lettuce and we thought, "No one's going to go, 'Poor baby!'" If you look at most of the foods that are addictive by nature, potatoes are very addictive because they raise serotonin. Our grains are gluten-y and gluten has a drug-like effect in the brain. So does dairy. Most of the things people get addicted to are: sugar, starch and dairy.
Dow: Healthy foods don't have that surge of dopamine or serotonin.

Besides a situation like Nikki's where tragedy led to this problem eating, do you see any other trends that lead to freaky eating?
Dow: There's a subset of phobias called neophobia, which is basically being afraid of new foods. In a lot of the patients we treated from Season 1, they had a lot of extreme aversion to not only tasting, but also touching new foods. New foods and textures can make them physically ill. We see some OCD-like symptoms.
Virgin: There's definitely a huge part of this being genetics and taste. But you may not like bitter tastes and there are still other vegetables that you can find. I think part of it is that they were pickier as kids, and their parents catered to it or they had a bad experience, and they find what's safe and just stick with it. And then they start building a life around it. It becomes their identity: "This is what I do."

What about treating people on camera? Is that an advantage or disadvantage?
Dow: If these people were seeing me on an outpatient basis, they'd be seeing me for an hour a week. The show and its budget allows us to build a graded exposure experiment that can treat with cognitive behavioral therapy. We're able to use the budget that in other settings would be cost-prohibitive.
Virgin: You can't help someone if they don't identify that they have a problem. I don't know any other place they could go to that would build up this whole shock therapy [like the kind on the show].

But is there a tradeoff to contend with the cameras? Are people, for example, less forthcoming?
Virgin: They forget about the cameras quickly. That's the thing with cameras. It becomes a non-issue once you open the floodgate.

What's it like on a human level to be exposed to this stuff? I know that you're professionals, but some of this behavior is extreme enough to be absurd. Do you find yourself suppressing laughter?
Virgin: We were in this meat locker, freezing because we had this guy who ate 5 lbs. of meat a day. We made him grind up 150 lbs. of meat into this grinder and it was spewing meat. We were freezing and we couldn't stop laughing.
Dow: This wasn't a situation where he was overly sensitive about it, so he was laughing, too. On the other side, Nikki made me cry. We were so moved by her story. How could you not be affected on a human level?
Virgin: When we meet them, our goal is just to break through. We're just looking for the way in. We don't know what it's going to be that's going to get them.

Anything turn your stomachs?
Dow: JJ hates maple syrup, so the maple syrup episode was hard for her.
Virgin: Raw meat from the first season was pretty gross.
Dow: This season we had someone who ate cooked meat, which was better. The first season guy ate not just raw beef, but raw chicken, raw hamburger. That was gross.
Virgin: Whitney, a girl who choked on her food, would take a bite and then spit it up into a cup.
Dow: She has four kids and she was modeling the behavior. So what was her 5-year-old doing? Chewing her food and spitting it back up.

Do you keep in touch with the people you treat on this show?
Virgin: Yes, a lot of them post on our Facebook walls. Right before this interview, we were talking to Nikki. Here's someone who was isolating herself, living a life away from her family. She says now she's going for walks with her family and they're going to the gym together and going to the movies.
Dow: She told us, "I got my life back."