Of sugar highs and alcohol lows: Judy Collins talks about her 'Cravings'

Singer-songwriter Judy Collins' work has spanned nearly 60 years and a vast array of styles, from folk and rock to Broadway and the Great American Songbook. But the Grammy winner also has carved out an equally distinguished second career as a memoirist.

Beginning with 1987’s Trust Your Heart, which explored her childhood fears, her early bouts of tuberculosis and polio, and her years on the 1960s folk scene, Collins has produced a series of startling, intimate confessional books that also have explored her struggles with depression, alcoholism, and addiction.

Collins’ latest book, Cravings: How I Conquered Food, due Tuesday from Knopf Doubleday’s Nan A. Talese imprint, takes a close look at the singer’s relationship with food, which she depicts as having been dysfunctional most of her life.

At turns elegant and ferocious, poetic and apocalyptic, Cravings describes Collins’ sometimes harrowing experience with a range of eating disorders and argues that they are all expressions of addiction -- especially to sugar. Collins claims this addiction is as destructive when we are dieting as when we are bingeing, because both extremes lock us into a cycle of compulsive behavior.

Collins 2016 LP Silver Skies Blue was recently nominated for a Grammy for best folk album.

She will talk about Cravings with Laura Kovacs  at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Free Library of Philadelphia’s Central Library. (Event details here.)

Collins spoke to me recently on the phone from her home in Manhattan.

Your books are deeply, sometimes shockingly, personal. Was Cravings painful to write?
It was wonderful to write. … Because I got it done! I wanted to help people by letting them know that there is a solution and they don’t have to go through the agony I went through to find it.

What was your family’s attitude to food while you were growing up?
It was good. My mother was a great cook, so we had three wonderful nutritious meals a day. And we avoided white flour and white rice, we wouldn’t eat anything that wasn’t full grain, and we were always getting lectures about not smoking. So it was really healthy.

Sounds ideal.
My parents discovered [Benjamin] Gayelord Hauser when I was little. ... I guess he was the first celebrity diet guru. They called him “the nutritionist to the stars,” and his message was all about not eating sugar or white flour, so I was already in the loop with all of that. … I think probably my own energy and my physical health is probably due to that healthy upbringing.

But it wasn’t always smooth sailing?
We had alcoholism in the house.

And alcohol addiction is sometimes twinned with sugar addiction.
That’s it. We all struggled against alcohol and against sugar. I was four years old when I got interested in sugar. Very interested. And I began drinking at 15. So [Cravings] is actually a story of addiction, and I quantify eating disorders of all kinds -- that is, anorexia, bulimia, obesity, morbid obesity -- all of these problems of food I quantify as allergies. Just as some people are allergic to alcohol, so they are allergic to sugar -- but also to grain, to flour, wheat, and corn. It’s all part of the same thing.

When you say allergic, you’re using the term as Alcoholics Anonymous defines it, right? A metaphor for the way an addict reacts so powerfully and so rapidly to the drug of choice?
That’s it exactly. When I say it’s an allergy I mean that they create a yearning, a craving … and they create a compulsion and before you know it, you are stuck and you don’t know how to get out.

Not everyone is born with a predisposition to alcoholism. You seem to suggest that when it comes to food, our diet is so out of whack it is actually creating addicts.
The fact is, we are allergic to some foods. To grains, sugar, flour, wheat, and corn. Grains were not part of our original genetic diet. We ate fruit, and occasionally we brought down the antelope or a bear and whatever else we could get our hands on. Grains became part of our diet very recently in human history.

Right. We don’t eat well.
Look at the numbers. It looks to me that about a third of the population has some of these problems with being overweight, with obesity. Grains have given us health problems like diabetes. And I’m not just about overeating. You can also eat too little. You can starve yourself literally to death, like Karen Carpenter.

You’re describing a cycle of compulsive behavior. Dieting one minute, bingeing another.
Most people are either going on a diet or coming off of one. It’s taking us to doctors and nutritionists; it’s making us look around for the next miracle program. The next miracle drug. And we are spending millions, probably billions of dollars on diets each year or on treating problems like heart disease, diabetes, respiratory problems.

Sounds dire. We started with a bowl of cereal, and now we’re having an international meltdown, an apocalypse. This is depressing.
But it’s not. What I want people to realize most of all is that to eat healthy doesn’t mean to deny yourself food. I don’t diet. I eat three healthy meals a day -- but no sugar, no grain, no wheat or corn. I eat very abundantly. There’s nothing skinny or restrictive about eating healthy. I have fabulous meals.

There’s a happy ending? Now you tell me!
I was fortunate enough to go to rehab in 1978 to get sober. But the one thing no one talked about there was food. I want to show that its just as important.


Author Appearance

Judy Collins, Cravings: How I Conquered Food.  7:30 p.m. Wednesday, at the Free Library of Philadelphia's Central Library, 1901 Vine St. Tickets: general $15; students $7. Information: 215-567-4341, freelibrary.org.