Labour’s former deputy leader Tom Watson has revealed he has an eating disorder, saying his relationship with food is very complicated and he has experienced some form of compulsive eating.
Watson, who stood down as an MP and deputy leader in 2019, also said that during the third lockdown his “disordered eating” became problematic again as he replaced his sugar addiction with a dairy one.
Speaking candidly to the Guardian restaurant critic Grace Dent on the Comfort Eating podcast, released on Tuesday, Watson – who at one point weighed 22 stone and had been diagnosed as type 2 diabetic – said at the age of 54 he had realised he had an eating disorder.
During a conversation with a friend, who revealed her issues with eating, he became aware that his “disordered eating” was part of a wider disorder.
“It was actually one of those idiot moments where … you realise something about yourself, and so I kind of think I’ve had some form of eating disorder,” he added, saying it could be akin to compulsive eating.
After being diagnosed as diabetic Watson changed his nutrition, giving up sugar, and lost eight stone. He left politics and started training, eventually putting his diabetes into remission, which he writes about in his book Downsizing. He said he was a “sugar addict” at one point.
The former MP said he put on some weight during the third lockdown, after thinking he had “cracked it” because he no longer ate “sugary” treats.
“The cheese crisis hit the cheesemaking industry. And I read Ned Palmer’s book [A Cheesemonger’s History of The British Isles] … and got a little bit obsessed with helping cheesemakers, so I was ordering cheese by mail order … And I was eating like 2kg of cheese in about 72 hours.”
He said he was like “a drug addict”, and had read a book that noted how when people give up sugar, they often develop another dependency.
“I had a year I was running 5km a day. I was lifting weights, riding bikes and with lockdown came this sort of massive setback.”
Watson was just 17 when he left his family home in Kidderminster, in Worcestershire, for Southampton, and said he was not well-equipped to look after himself as he did not know how to cook.
He was elected MP for West Bromwich East in 2001 and held various other posts in his career. In 2015, under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, Labour members and supporterselected him as the party’s deputy leader.
Watson – who describes life as a politician as having “no switch off” and says that he “went mad” – said that if he had anything to thank Corbyn for, it was for releasing him from the immense pressure of politics.
Though often at odds with Corbyn, in previous interviews he has praised him personally but said conditions within Labour had contributed to making his own political career unsustainable.
“He [Corbyn] did rid me of a 35-year, minute-by-minute obsession,” he said. “I mean, when I walked away [from politics]… it was, was like a sort of shedding of very heavy overcoat.”
Watson said he started putting on weight from his early 20s and would go on “fad diets” that failed. As a politician he was sleep-deprived and said his eating was “chaotic”. He finished work at 10pm and would go to London’s Soho for drinks after work.
“I’d go out on a Tuesday and Wednesday. And so it’s a very unusual life. And I definitely, you know, I reached a point where I was going to die if I carried on, I think: I mean, I was probably diabetic for some years before I formally got a diagnosis.”
During his wide-ranging interview with Dent, Watson also described the murder of Jo Cox, who was killed as a serving MP, as the “worst day of his life” in politics.