Nov 13

More than 4.5 million people were watching when Shay Sorrells got sent home from the Biggest Loser ranch in the reality show’s current season. Shay’s departure was significant because she was the popular weight loss show’s heaviest participant to date, weighing in at 470 pounds. She had lost 100 pounds before she was booted off, the most for any of the show’s female contestants on its boot camp “ranch.” The blogosphere was flooded with posts from fans who were rooting for Shay and were extremely saddened by her departure.

The show is filled with sad moments, but the saddest reality that the Biggest Loser has delivered so far is the realization that addiction is now so prevalent in the United States that it has become a popular source of prime time entertainment.

“It’s a national epidemic,” says HLN anchor, Jane Velez-Mitchell. The “it” that she’s dubbing as an epidemic is not obesity in particular, but rather the “it” epidemic of addiction in general.

“Ninety percent of the stories that we cover on ‘Issues’ are in some way, shape, or form, related to addiction,” Jane said in a recent interview with “Whether it’s alcohol, drugs, money, or sex, this comes up continuously. So it is one of the dominant issues of our time.”

Velez-Mitchell feels particularly qualified to comment on the American addiction epidemic not only because of her position as an internationally recognized news reporter, but also because she is a recovering addict herself. In her recently released memoir, “iWant: My Journey From Addiction and Overconsumption to a Simpler, Honest Life,” Velez-Mitchell reveals her own personal struggle to overcome a series of addictions – to alcohol, cigarettes, work, shopping, food and sugar.

“Addictions jump!” Jane writes in her book. “You give up one thing and something else pops up to take its place. The reason for this is obvious. Addicts will use whatever substance is available to escape and self-medicate.”

So while most of the “Biggest Loser” audience thinks they are watching obese contestants struggle with physical workouts and emotional breakdowns, what they’re really watching is the individual struggle to break an addiction to food as a drug of choice.

Shay Sorrells was one Biggest Loser contestant who seemed painfully aware of how she has used food as a drug to self-medicate throughout her life. The daughter of a heroin addict, Shay was immersed in the lifestyle of addiction in her earliest childhood. When her mother’s addiction caused Shay to be homeless for two years, the lack of food available during that time triggered Shay’s lifetime obsession with getting food and her addiction to consuming that food.

It is certainly easy to imagine the underlying terror and helplessness that Shay – or any pre-school child – would have felt in those childhood circumstances. It is also easy to understand how a young child could become dependent on some type of substance to soothe and medicate those feelings. Shay’s drug of choice was food. For other Americans who have pain that is overwhelming, the drug of choice could be cigarettes, pot, pills, alcohol, work, television, the internet, video games, sex, caffeine, or just about anything else that can be used to escape.

“The problem I have with alcoholism is a problem that millions share,” Velez-Mitchell said to That “problem” is not just alcoholism in particular, but the wide variety of addictions in general that an estimated 225 million American addicts are struggling with every day.

If there is, in fact, a common challenge that Americans are having with addictions, then there must also be a common thread running through the stories behind the addictions of Shay, Jane, and every other addict. Velez-Mitchell believes that there is a commonality, and in an effort to remove the stigma and shame from addiction, she created a CNN iReport Assignment for viewers to submit their addiction stories.

The dozens of stories that have been posted on the CNN’s iReport website so far illustrate that addictions can be found in every walk of life in America. The root causes behind the addictive self-medication are sometimes simple, sometimes complex, but always individually overwhelming. The “iReporters” who have shared their addiction stories include:

- A real estate agent who got addicted to crystal meth and went from making $200,000 per year to sleeping in the bushes behind a McDonald’s

- A war veteran whose wife, mother, mother-in-law, and brother all died as a result of their addictions to drugs and alcohol

- A California woman who was given alcohol in her baby bottles when she was teething

- A man who started smoking at the age of eight because the Marlboro Man was one of his role models

- A cheerleader who started drinking to overcome painful shyness

- A woman who had become addicted to food after being abused at age eight, and then became addicted to purging to allow more compulsive eating

- A teen who became addicted to cutting herself after being locked in her closet for most of her childhood

It is these kinds of stories that Velez-Mitchell believes need to be told. She broke her own 12-step vow of anonymity to write “iWant” in order to give the national addiction epidemic a face and a voice. “I wanted to share my experience to try to prevent someone else from going through the hell that I went through,” Velez-Mitchell told about writing her memoir. “Why waste a good problem?”

HLN will be accepting addiction stories at through November 20, 2009. iReport submissions chosen to be included on “Issues with Jane Velez-Mitchell will receive an autographed copy of “iWant” and will become a candidate to visit Jane on the set of “Issues with Jane Velez-Mitchell” in New York.

More About Jane Velez-Mitchell and “iWant”:

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Sep 04

Last week, a class action lawsuit was filed against Denny’s restaurant chain for serving salty food. Jason Ciszewski, a Denny’s regular, is claiming that his three favorite meals there, “Moons Over My Hammy,” the “SuperBird Sandwich” and the “Meat Lover’s Scramble” contain so much sodium that it caused him to develop high blood pressure. In Ciszewski’s opinion, it was Denny’s responsibility to warn him that dishes composed primarily of ham, bacon, sausage and cheese contained a lot of salt, and since they didn’t, it should cost them $5 million.

While there may be a measure of personal responsibility that diners like Ciszewski need to take for their own eating choices, the issue of sodium content in Americans’ foods is valid, and one that is being raised by many health experts. Health organizations are taking a fast-growing interest in the amount of salt that is contained in restaurant food, fast food, as well as the processed, canned and prepared foods that fill U.S. grocery stores.

According to the American Heart Association, at least 70% of the sodium in the average American diet is coming from the food itself, not from a salt shaker. When American meals are prepared in food factories instead of family kitchens, salt is used in liberal and sometimes dangerous proportions. In a report released in March, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) estimated that more than 130 million Americans are consuming too much salt and putting themselves at risk for serious illnesses.

Hypertension, or high blood pressure, is the medical condition that is most often associated with excessive salt intake, but it is not the only malady related to high sodium intake. Last week the results of a study with 20,000 people age 45 and older published in the “Neurology” journal concluded that salt-induced high blood pressure can also cause memory loss and impaired brain functions. And there are many more negative effects that sodium can have on your body, according Tammy Lakatos Shames and Lyssie Lakatos, sisters who are both registered dieticians in New York.

The Nutrition Twins, as the Lakatos sisters are called, have been dietetic counselors for more than a decade. But it’s just in the past few years that they’ve found the need to focus extra attention on the sodium intake of their clients. The reason? “Manufacturers sneak salt into everything, especially the ‘healthy’ foods that we dutifully eat while trying to be ‘good,’” they explain.

The Lakatos sisters are now sending clients on a serious scavenger hunt to find all the hidden salt in the foods they’re consuming. Salt is hidden in “everything from low-fat salad dressings and packaged diet entrees to lean meats and soups, and wheat breads and cereals,” they say, and it is cumulatively dangerous.

Too much sodium can cause what the Nutrition Twins call “salt toxicity,” which is exactly what it implies – a level of salt that is so high that it becomes toxic to vital organs and body functions. Beyond hypertension, the Lakatos sisters outline many of the effects that salt toxicity can have on the body:

- Overworks and damages kidneys trying to expel excess salt
- Increases the risk for kidney stones
- Increases the risk for stomach cancer
- Lowers metabolism
- Increases the risk for diabetes
- Increases the risk for osteoporosis
- Damages the heart and contributes to cardiovascular disease
- Hardens arteries, decreasing the flow of oxygen in the blood
- Increases the risk for strokes

As bad as those conditions are, the biggest impact that salt is having on the American population today is that it is making them big. Salt toxicity produces more fat cells in the body, makes the fat cells more dense, increases food cravings, and decreases the ability to burn fat and repair muscle. More than 70 million Americans are obese, and salt toxicity is a major contributor to that condition.

This connection between obesity and salt intake is the reason why the Nutrition Twins thought it was vitally important to write an entire book focused on salt in the diet. It’s also the reason why their book is called, “The Secret to Skinny.”

“Once inside your body, salt wreaks havoc on your waistline,” Tammy and Lyssie wrote in the book. It’s seemingly innocent, and often invisible, so most people don’t pay it any attention” they say. One example in the book of a “seemingly innocent” meal is the “Guiltless Chicken Sandwich” on the menu at Chili’s restaurant. Although it only has 490 calories and 8 grams of fat, it also has a whopping 2,720 milligrams of salt, which is more than is recommended for an entire day.

The Nutrition Twins urge people to take a more holistic view of their food for both diet and health reasons. Focusing specifically on just fat grams or calories or carbs to the exclusion of all other attributes, like salt content, is leading people to choose foods that have detrimental effects to both their weight and their health. “Our experience proves that if you learn to drop the salt, you will drop a size – or more – and add years to your life,” they say.

A holistic view is something that the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) supports as well when it comes to America’s restaurants. It has had Denny’s in its crosshairs for a while, and even helped another diner file a sodium-related lawsuit against the chain in July.

The CSPI also called Domino’s new BreadBowl Pasta dishes “food porn” because the carb, fat, and salt content in them are so obscene. Earlier this year the association presented testimony to the Senate Finance Committee which cited Red Lobster, Chili’s, and Olive Garden as examples of restaurants serving food that has four days worth of sodium in a single meal. The CSPI is working on the sodium issue in legal and government venues since consumers don’t seem aware, and restaurant chains don’t seem to care.

The Nutrition Twins think the salt crisis in America can be easily solved by individuals, one bite at a time. “Look closely at the nutrition information and you’ll see why you should rethink your order the next time you head out for food on the run,” Tammy and Lyssie say. And if nutritional information isn’t easily accessible, the CSPI will be working hard to change that, on behalf of all American diners.

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