Dr. Mike Dow

What do you get when you mix Intervention, Hoarders, and a whole lot of food? TLC's Freaky Eaters. "It definitely has elements of both shows — the premise of Intervention and the obsessive-compulsion of Hoarders," co-host and psychotherapist Dr. Mike Dow tells TVGuide.com of the new TLC series. "But [those shows] explore well-known addictions and disorders. I think people will be surprised and moved to learn about food addiction, which is not as front-and-center, but affects so many people." The docu-series profiles people with bizarre obsessions with a certain food, compelling them to eat it over and over again. Dow, who treats the eaters with nutrition and wellness expert JJ Virgin, says more people than you might expect can relate to the compulsion.

TVGuide.com: "Freaky eaters" makes for a catchy show name, but is there an actual medical term for people with the compulsion to eat the same food?
Mike Dow:
You know, there's not. What's interesting is that the people on the show don't fit neatly into one of the three diagnoses: anorexia, bulimia and binge-eating disorder. Everything else just falls into a catch-all — eating disorder not otherwise specified. I guess this is what you would call selective-eating disorder, which is not a formally recognized diagnosis. However, there are a lot of online groups for this. We're dealing with the people who can really get better quickly and usually have an emotional addictive component to their eating.

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TVGuide.com: How much of it is emotional and how much of it is psychological and whatnot?
Dow:
Like any addictive behavior, you have to take into consideration psychological, social, emotional and biological factors. [One of the episodes features] a divorced woman who became addicted to sugar after she lost custody of her kids. ... When she was young, her mom fed her cakes and candy, so she equated it with love. The divorce became this trigger. It's like an alcoholic. Usually there's something that they're medicating. There was a study that says it takes more and more of the same amount of fat to cause the same response in the brain. We build tolerance to food in the same way that people build tolerance to cocaine or alcohol. There is a biological addictive response that is being built. I don't think a lot of people think of food as an addictive substance. But it absolutely is. This is when having seconds is not enough, to say the least.

TVGuide.com: When you stepped in to help them, how did they take to the treatment and change in diet?
Dow:
Some adapted quickly, but others were much more gradual. It was so interesting with the French fry girl. We used food coloring to dye the fries different colors. It's part of a cognitive process to help her eat other foods. But when I made her eat a fry dyed blue, she was sobbing. She was so frightened. It was traumatic. She was very sensitive and very used to eating a French fry as-is.

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TVGuide.com: Most of these people are addicted to fast food or junk food. Is there anyone who was addicted to something that most people wouldn't find appealing?
Dow:
You're going to love the episode with raw meat. Again, it's an example of something that doesn't fit nicely into a singular diagnosis. This guy, Daniel — his grandfather, father and brother are all in the Air Force. He comes from a traditional military family. Daniel wanted to major in philosophy and poetry in college, which he did. But he felt very emasculated — just not getting approval in the right way. He didn't connect that until I brought it up that maybe he was compensating by eating raw chicken and raw meat. He said, "I never thought of it like that."

TVGuide.com: Was he aware that he had a problem — that it's not normal to eat raw meat?
Dow: Not really. He felt like he was invincible like a lot of young people think they are. We tested the raw meat for salmonella and we showed him how long a tapeworm can get to try to explain it to him. It wasn't until [some] of the raw meat came back positive for salmonella that he said, "OK, maybe this is a problem."

TVGuide.com: Have you kept up with everyone's progress since the show?
Dow:
I've followed-up with a couple of them. They are doing quite well. I think addiction is a hard reach in general for the public. But for food, there are so many things that we can relate to. I mean, how many of us have self-medicated ourselves with a glass of wine or a pint of ice cream when we've had a bad day? It's not a true addiction for most of us, but I think we'll see most of the emotional underpinnings are the same.

TVGuide.com: What do you hope the audience will get out of the show?
Dow:
Well, first of all, I love being part of it. I think of Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. I love those moments where you can really change people's lives. When we walked away, I knew that we had changed their lives and that was so rewarding. I hope people will see that there are things that you can do about your emotional problems and you don't have to get stuck in these addictive behaviors, whether it's with drugs, alcohol or food.

Freaky Eaters premieres Sunday at 10/9c.