The Phenomenon of Craving (False Starving)

A food addict is distinctly different than a normal eater or an emotional eater. A food addict has a chemical dependency like an alcoholic or drug addict. Specific foods or food in general can trigger a process of physical craving. The food addict often thinks this is hunger, but it isn’t. It is more like the experience of starvation; the food addict thinks that s/he has to have more food, even if she is physically full and nutritionally satisfied. Sometimes s/he thinks life will not be worth living without a specific food or that s/he’ll die if s/he doesn’t get more food. Neither is true, so the experience of physical craving is actually like having a “false starving.” It is typical once the disease has progressed for the food addict to think s/he will have just one of a food or just one serving, but then once having started eating it wanting to continue to eat more and sometimes start bingeing out of control. For the food addict, craving is often misunderstood as hunger. Hunger and craving are very different.

A normal eater gets hungry when it is time to eat. It is a body signal like a sense of being too hot or too cold. If you do not eat when you are hungry, it feels uncomfortable – just like a person is uncomfortable when the room temperature is too hot or too cold. An important difference between hunger and craving is that the normal eater can live with the discomfort of being hungry just like most people can live with the temperature being a little too cold or a little too warm.

Craving has an urgency to it. When craving strikes food addicts they have to eat. It is like a drowning person under water struggling for breath; there is a sense that one might die if one does not get to the surface and get some air. Food addicts frequently report they have a feeling that they will die if they don’t get to their binge foods. Craving is a distortion of the mind at an instinctual level. The food addicts’ impulse to eat their addictive foods is crossed with a survival impulse: This has to be done now!”

We call the physical craving of the food addict “false starving.” Unlike hunger, there is this deep urgency and sense of impending danger if craving is not responded to. But when the food addict eats this often does not satisfy the hunger. Rather the craving continues – sometimes even intensifies. It isn’t a real body message, because the person has usually eaten fairly recently and shouldn’t even be hungry, much less starving. The fact that it is a false starving is emphasized by the fact that eating itself can often trigger the craving.

When truly starving people are interviewed, they report a preoccupation with thoughts of food, a compulsive drive to have one or more particular foods, and a willingness to abandon civil and moral rules to obtain food. When food is delivered to true starving communities, there is often a need for police or army guard to keep the starving people from hurting, even killing, each other for food – even when there is obvious assurance that there is enough food for everyone.

Food addicts report lying to parents, close relatives and friends about their eating. Like with alcoholics and other drug addicts, there is a impulse to”protect their stash” at a deep instinctual, often unconscious, level. Food addicts have stolen food as children they have been told not to touch, as babysitters from the family’s home, as school children out of other’s pockets, and as adults off other’s plates. They have eaten possibly spoiled food, food off the floor, food out of the garbage can. They have stolen money from their parents and others to buy food.

The Produce Department AmsterdamFood is so plentiful that these crimes of food addicts are not seen as being as serious as those of drug addicts and the lengths they go to – like holding up a store or stealing a relative’s TV – to get money for their drugs. But the feelings and thoughts inside the minds of food addicts in later stages of the disease can be just as strong, intense and serious to the food addict as ithey are for the heroin or crack addict.

One way to look at this is that there is a simple but important disconnection between the nervous system and the brain like in the experience of dyslexia or being colorblind. A person who is dyslexic sees a word in their mind the opposite way it is printed on the page. The word “was” is seen as “saw” or the word “raw” is seen as “war.” There is nothing that can change this misperception. It has to be identified, accepted and adjusted to. Colorblindness is the same; the colorblind person sees both the color red and the color green as green, for example. This is a reason why we always put the red light on top of the green on traffic lights; people who are colorblind can tell whether ort not to go by checking if the light that is shining is on the top or on the bottom. As with dyslexia, color blindness is sometimes a nuisance, but other times it is really dangerous, and there is not much you can do about it except learn to compensate.

The phenomenon of craving in the food addict is exactly like that. The food addict will really believe s/he is hungry – or, closer to the point, often think s/he is really hungry –when, in fact, his/her body needs little or no more food at all. If s/he is not aware of this, s/he will eat more, often a lot more, than is needed, and, while this might not be much of a problem if it occurs very infrequently, if it becomes more frequent or pronounced it can cause a lot of problems. The first, obviously, is that s/he puts on unwanted weight, and has trouble keeping it off even after serious dieting. Second, the obesity – and often the shift away from good nutrition – put him/her in danger of lots of other health problems over time: diabetes, high blood pressure, joint and back problems, strokes and heart attacks to name just a few. Third, problems with weight can affect one’s self-esteem; repeated failure at dieting can lead to guilt, shame and/or depression. Finally, experiences of eating out of control can negatively affect one’s deepest attitudes and spirit.

For the food addict, all this comes from simply not knowing that you get “false starving,” i.e. that you often think that the most important thing in life is to eat when your body is not even hungry. This is an experience that normal eaters or emotional eaters do not have.

© Phil Werdell, M.A.

Anorexia & Food Addiction

© Phil Werdell, M.A.

The common image of food addicts is that they are overweight. A majority of those for whom the disease of food addiction has progressed certainly are obese – and/or morbidly (i.e., life threateningly) obese. Yet there are many food addicts who are a normal weight. Some of these healthy looking food addicts are bulimic. Others just have a metabolic system that keeps them appearing “normal,” even when they are bingeing abnormally. There is also a small but important group of food addicts who are dangerously thin. Most of these are food addicted and anorexic. Even some overly thin folks who are unable or unwilling to eat enough to come up to a healthy weight are also chemically dependent on food and have a history of progressive food addiction which much be addressed before they can have a full, healing long-term recovery.

How can an anorexic know if they are food addicted?

One obvious sign of food addiction is a history of out of control eating – usually bingeing, sometimes purging and almost always becoming overweight by traditional medical standards.
Restricting food begins as a way of compensating for a binge. Then regular fasting becomes a strategy for periodic weight loss after gaining by overeating. It is only as the anorexia progresses that such a person stays thin – and then becomes unhealthily thin – and begins to “look like an anorexic.”

A second indication that an anorexic is also chemically dependent on food is a desire to eat a lot more than they are eating – especially sweets and “junk foods” – as well as the strong desire to control their weight and body size by undereating. If there is a history of craving sugar, flour, and fat, this is a reason to consider the possibility of food addiction as a second diagnosis. These cravings can be current, but do not have to be.

All anorexics obsess about their bodies and greatly fear getting fat. It is less known that many anorexics also obsess about food. This often manifests as calorie counting, a list – often quite long – of “bad food” and a preoccupation with eating in a way that they can control what they do – and more importantly, do not – put in their mouths. What is less common is a constant or frequent obsession about wanting to eat sweets, snack foods or just “more” of any food. Especially if this sometimes gets so strong that it seems like “I just have to have it,” there is good reason to assume this person is food addicted as well as anorexic.

Of course, anorexics should use the whole range of diagnostic indicators of food addiction to ascertain if they are chemically dependent on food. There are the traditional indicators of food addiction denial: lying to others and themselves about what they eat, breaking their own moral code – e.g. stealing food or stealing to get food, seeing their powerlessness over food progress over time, feeling numb or high or drugged after eating, experiencing symptoms of detoxification – e.g. anxiety, depression, sleepiness, inability to sleep – when eliminating a binge food altogether. Few food addicts have all of these symptoms; at least they are not able to see them in their own experience at first. So, just one or two obvious signs of food addiction are enough to at least investigate further.

Anorexia is traditionally understood as a psycho-social disorder. It is now also being treated effectively as an addictive disease. (See text at Anorexics and Bulimics Anonymous). In this view of anorexia, the drug which becomes addictive isthe illusion of control. Whether being treated as a primarily psychological problem or a more complex addictive illness, the anorexic needs to learn to counter irrational thinking about body image and food and address unresolved trauma from the past. Many – if not most – anorexics that are treated in either modality are not food addicted.

Those who are chemically dependent on food can best be seen as having more than one illness. Those who are addicted need to abstain from their food drug(s) of choice as well as become willing and able to eat more food and often a wider variety of foods. If they have a history of bingeing on sugar, it is questionable for them to try to learn to eat sweets in moderation.

On the other hand, many anorexic food addicts who were addicted to fat, go to the extreme of not eating anything with fat in it at all. Since everyone needs some fat in their diet to enable them to digest other foods, these food addicted anorexics do need to learn to eat fat in moderation. The recovery of those with both food addiction and anorexia can be quite complicated and difficult.

In general, it is our experience that people with advanced anorexia and food addiction need more time and support in recovery than those who are only chemically dependent on food. Anorexia has its own denial, and the food addicted anorexic can have special problemS breaking food addictive denial. The illusion of control in anorexia – and often bulimia – makes it doubly difficult to accept real powerlessness over food. There are also many cases of people who were anorexic and bulimic in their youth and then became compulsive overeaters. If they are food addicted, they often need a great deal of help to break through their biochemical food dependent denial.

There are mutual support fellowships for pure anorexics. There is also a growing welcome for anorexics and bulimics in the oldest and largest food related 12 Step fellowship, Overeaters Anonymous (OA). There are also Twelve Step fellowships separate from OA that focus just on people with eating disorders; besides Anorexics and Bulimics Anonymous (ABA), there is the newer Eating Disorder Anonymous (EDA).

All of these fellowships tend to suggest food plans which include all food in moderation, though ABA very specifically supports those who abstain from specific foods, i.e., food addicts.

This is the key to those who are dually diagnosed with anorexia and food addiction: they need to surrender control of both their obsession with not “getting fat” and their specific food drugs. They need to learn to not restrict and to not overeat. They need to eliminate and detoxify from food(s) upon which they have become chemically dependent and deal with unwanted feelings and irrational thoughts that lead them to starve themselves. Moreover, as physical recovery begins, there are always deeper emotional and spiritual issues which, if not dealt with thoroughly, can lead to relapse down the line.

How SHiFT Helps Food Addicts

Food addicts come to SHiFT because they are aware of their food addiction and know SHiFT’s history of support for food dependency recovery. Some are often surprised when they discover they are also anorexic. It is hard for this group to understand that all anorexics are not dangerously thin. In fact, we find that there is at least a little bit of anorexia under most progressed food addicts. It is the part of their illness in which they have spent so much time trying to control their eating. It is the part of their recovery which stays rigid and perfectionistic long after the first year of abstinence. The lack of joy and true happiness in this “controlled physical recovery” leads many to relapse after a few years.

More difficult is the anorexic food addict who is dominated by the restrictive side of their eating disorder. For some it takes much longer than seven days – the length of the SHiFT residential Acorn Primary Intensive© – to be able eat a healthy amount and mix of food. If they are willing to try, we will often accept them and support them as long as they do not need hospitalization or direct medical supervision.

One suggestion we have for those who think they might fit into this category is to read the first 137 pages of Anorexics and Bulimics Anonymous; if you are willing to try this approach to dealing with your anorexia and abstain from your likely addictive foods, the Primary Intensive© will probably be helpful.

Cross Addictions

© Phil Werdell, M.A.

The Problem of Cross Addictions

Let us begin by looking at the easier part of the problem: food addicts who are cross addicted and already abstinent and in recovery from other chemical dependent substances. Three of those most frequently encountered are nicotine, alcohol and street drugs.

Smokers and Food Addiction

A very common issue of cross-addiction that is usually not talked about in these terms is “shifting” from nicotine to food as a drug of choice. We see it all the time. Someone works hard to put down cigarettes. It might take more that one, maybe as many as a dozen attempts. As soon as there is a period of abstinence from cigarettes, though, the prior smoker starts to gain weight. Some go back to smoking to keep cigarettes as a part of their weight control regime. If they have a commitment to their health that moves them to stop smoking again, then their weight becomes a problem again.

While there was still an argument about whether or not cigarettes were addictive – much less dangerous to your health, almost no one noticed the cross addiction “shift” from nicotine to food. With the major changes in consciousness and in public health policies about smoking, there are more and more people getting the support they need to stop smoking. Health professionals working in chemical dependency treatment are more likely to be conversant with the addictive nature of nicotine. We can now see that the weight gain that sometimes follows abstinence from cigarettes may be a cross addiction.

One small fact that is seldom mentioned is that tobacco is often cured in sugar. This makes it a natural entry-level drug for sugar addiction.

Alcoholics who are also Food Addicts

There are many who come to Overeaters Anonymous (OA) from other 12 Step programs, especially Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), that have substantial time sober from alcohol and other addictive substances. In fact, they often come to OA or one of the other food–related 12 Step fellowships because they find themselves reacting to food just like they had reacted to alcohol or their drug of choice many years before. In early recovery, many AA’s are often counseled by their sponsors to not worry if they are craving sugar or gaining weight. In fact, the recovery text, Alcoholics Anonymous suggests that a newly sober drinker carry come candy in their pockets to help relieve urges to drink. Especially if their chemical dependency on alcohol or drugs had been progressing for years, it certainly looked like drugs and alcohol could killed them long before food.

Food addiction also progresses as a chemical dependency, so the dangers of addictive eating can easily increase over time. Many recovering alcoholics first try to work on their eating within AA. just as they work on other life problems using the 12 Steps, and many are successful.

Many are not. Often they will identify sugar, flour or fat as a substance that is acting in their bodies like a narcotic. They do this just because of their long time experience using and recovering from alcoholism and/or drug addiction. However, when they decide to abstain from their self-assessed food addiction, they are not able to do it. It is difficult to move from the “all or nothing” model of no alcohol to a structured eating plan. This is doubly a problem for those who have already decided to recover from nicotine addiction.

This group has special problems, some of which are addressed in Judi Hollis’s excellent publication When AA’s go to OA. It is humbling to come into a new fellowship with years of sobriety in AA and have to start recovery over from the beginning in OA. It is confusing when the AA newcomers observe a large variety of food plans and perspectives on abstinence in OA.

We think there is another problem: for many alcoholics: food is an earlier and primary addiction. What is alcohol but grain and a form of sugar? The most common addictive foods are sugar and flour. A majority of these sober alcoholic food addicts can quickly remember using and abusing food years before they picked up alcohol.

Not only does this mean that their detoxification from food is likely to be worse than their detox from alcohol, it means that they have to deal on a whole new level with mental-emotional and spiritual developmental problems that began earlier.

It is often said that emotional development stops – or is at least serious curtailed – from the age that a person begins using a substance addictively. Thus, early developmental issues such as trust vs. mistrust must be revisited as one begins to recover, and there are often very basic emotional skills which were stunted in infancy and now must be developed as an adult. When raw emotions came up in early alcohol recovery, one could still use food to cope. Now, for many, there is nothing.

It is true that when the alcoholic says they don’t drink, they do drink water, fruit juice, coffee, tea and other beverages. This is more like the food addict’s abstinence: no binge foods, but other foods are OK. However, the person addicted to food in volume does have a qualitatively different problem being abstinent. This is why many food addicts commit their entire meals daily – sometimes even meal by meal – to their sponsors.

Food abstinence is different from abstinence from other substances in that the food addict still needs to eat several times a day. It is not possible to just “not be around food” the way it is possible to avoid alcohol or smoking.

Drug Addicts who are also Food Addicts

Some alcoholics put on a “beer belly,” but there are few heroin or cocaine addicts who are overweight. So, it is often a surprise to a recovering drug addict when they cross over and start eating and putting on weight out of control. As we shall see, foods can break down in the digestive symptom into bio-chemical compounds that are similar to the opioids in narcotics. The dosage and effect of using morphine, heroin or cocaine is much stronger, but once these are out of their blood, some physically sober drug addicts can get high and chemically addicted just by using more and more food.

Not all narcotics users get hooked on food when they become drug free. In fact, a majority do not, at least at first. For those who do, though, this is a very serious problem. Not only do they then engage all the medical risks of obesity – and of bulimia and anorexia with they try to purge or restrict to control their weight, but active food addiction can be a trigger back into hard drugs.

Then there is the case of marijuana. While there is an argument yet about whether or not this drug is physically addictive, it clearly can be psychologically addictive, and for many it triggers the well known “munchies” and minimizes resistance to a variety of acting out behaviors. For the food addict whose disease is advanced, this is a serious problem. Often they cannot stay food abstinent unless they abstain from marijuana, too. For those unwilling or unable to do this, this means they are likely to eat, and addictive eating for a food addict means to die.

Food Addicts Not Yet Abstinent in Another Addiction

There is a different – and equally important – set of problems that occur when a food addict is actively using other substances or processes while being abstinent from food.

For some food addicts, this is not a large issue. For example, many food plans ask for abstinence from alcohol or caffeine. There are food addicts who can tell immediately that they are not normal drinkers of alcohol or caffeine, but they are not as important “food drugs” for them as, possibly, sugar, flour, fat or volume. So, these food addicts are quick to accept abstinence from liquor and coffee.

Other food addicts are much more attached to these other edible addictions. They are, at first, not willing to even consider putting down alcohol or caffeine. As they do consider the possibility, they are in the stage of bargaining. “I’ll just have an occasional glass of wine with diner.” “I need my cup of coffee in the morning.” If and when they do become willing to abstain, they fall off the wagon on this one food substance over and over.

For some food addicts this is a grave problem because alcohol or caffeine – another addiction – can turn into a “gateway drug” leading to serious food bingeing and long periods of relapse.

Step 2: The Lies I Tell Myself

“Came to believe that a Power greater than myself could restore me to sanity.”

My food addict’s mind is endlessly creative. It will tell me that changing my diet, arguing with my sponsor about food amounts, thinking I need to lose more weight, and impulsively trying a new food are all perfectly reasonable.

My thinking is my problem.

I used to “think” that if I just found the right diet, the right sponsor, the right medication, did enough therapy, lost enough weight, that I would stop having “problems with food.” I didn’t want to be a food addict. I lived my life by what I wanted, or didn’t want to do; what I felt like doing, in the moment. If I think it, then it’s right.

I would plan to eat abstinently, and then change my mind.

Because I thought all those things, I believed I was right. I would run ideas by myself, and of course “my self” would agree. I spent endless hours counting calories and planning what I would do when the weight came off. Meanwhile, being fat was depressing, so I told myself it was “OK to have just a little,” which would invariably lead to a binge.

I tell myself a lie, and then I eat.

I spent 10 years in and out of relapse with food addiction. I didn’t “think” I needed to stop eating flour and sugar. I didn’t “think” I should have to ask another food addict for decisions about my food. I didn’t “think” I needed to commit my food on a daily basis, and keep my commitment. And I certainly didn’t “think” I needed to do those Steps exactly the way they were written. I did them “my” way, the way I thought “worked for me.”

I utterly believe my own lies.

I felt vaguely offended by Step Two. “Restoring me to sanity?” I wasn’t insane! I told myself “I just have a problem with food.” Insane people are those drug-addict homeless people lounging on the street talking to themselves, not me. As a therapist, I told myself that “insane people” have fixed delusions and problems with reality. I didn’t “think” I was anything like them.

And yet I kept eating. My best efforts would provide me with a day or two of “abstinence,” clenching my teeth all the way through. What was I doing wrong? I tried everything, I “thought.” But I didn’t want to admit what I wasn’t willing to try. Which was most of the program.

I (the big I) was trying to do it by myself, my way.

Finally, I gave up. I gave up trying to do it my way and became willing to follow directions. I committed my food every day to a sponsor and ate only what I committed. Another food addict “held” my food plan, and I agreed not to make changes without talking to her first. If she didn’t think it was a good idea, I didn’t do it.

I stopped lying to others about my food.

But after 2 1/2 years of clean abstinence, I was still obsessed with food. Candy in the drugstore would “sing” to me. I knew everything that was in the vending machines at work, even if I didn’t want to. I knew what everyone else was eating, all the time. Going to the grocery store was still torture. I had to stare at the floor when I walked down the aisles. Hearing others talk about food could trigger a food obsession I would have to talk about for days in order not to eat it. I hated watching normal eaters have dessert and other things I told myself I “couldn’t have.” I was still lying to myself about food.

Food was not my problem.

I wasn’t eating compulsively any more, I was a normal weight, but my thinking about food was making me crazy. I started to wonder if I hadn’t always been this crazy. I still believed that food would make me feel better, even though I had enormous evidence that it never had. That actually qualified as a “fixed delusion,” now didn’t it? I believed I had to do food a certain way, with very strict rules, in order to stay abstinent. I “thought” it was my abstinence.

My thinking about food is fatally flawed.

I finally knew I really was insane. It was my thinking that kept taking me back to the food, over and over. But how could I possibly change my thinking with my thinking? Simple answer: I can’t. But God can. I didn’t believe that God (or whatever) cared about me or my food problem. I was so busy living life my way, “thinking” that my way was the right way. Finally, I heard the question: “What if my way is wrong?”

Being “right” and doing it “my way” is playing God.

I didn’t think I was egotistical; I just had to do it my way, and things would be fine. Except that it never worked out. I finally understood about the actor in the Big Book of AA in Step Three, the one who keeps trying to be a director and get everyone to perform his way. I was selfishly chasing after what I wanted all the time.

What if abstinence was a gift from God? A gift I could take really good care of and return, with thanks, at the end of each day? I didn’t have to be “in charge” all the time. I could practice trust. I could turn my thoughts and my actions over to the care of God.

Making that Third Step decision meant I was no longer running my life based on what I wanted; the four-year-old inside of me was no longer in charge.

According to the dictionary, what does restore” mean?

  • To return to its original or usable and functioning condition;
  • To regenerate: return to life; get or give new life or energy;
  • To give or bring back
  • To repair: restore by replacing a part or putting together what is torn or broken

After doing the work in the 4th and 5th Steps, I could truly see how insane my thinking was, not only about food, but about life. The lies I told myself built an enormous tower of resentments I could have never dismantled without the help of God and a wise sponsor. Before every slip or binge was a resentment. Under every resentment were lies and fears.

I have only one “problem:” being separated from God.

If I am practicing rigorous honesty and a daily spiritual life (Steps 6-12), I am not obsessed with food. It no longer calls to me, or bothers me. I can focus on being of service, being happy, joyous and free. This freedom is more wonderful than I could ever have imagined with my limited thinking.

The problem has been removed.

© Arian Eigen Heald, M.Div.

Step 1 Writing (12 Steps of Food Addiction)

© Phil Werdell, M.A. (This is a portion of a much longer essay)

“We admitted we were powerless over food, that our lives had become unmanageable.”

First Step writing is about admitting powerlessness over food. If there was something else that a person could do in a particular situation to have control over their eating, then they would not be powerless. That is obvious.

So, First Step writing is subtly but importantly different than inventorying a situation in which one was not food abstinent and figuring out what could have been done differently. In the arena of food addiction recovery, this distinction is fundamentally important because most food addicts who have gone over the line of biochemical dependency are not able to find long-term recovery without completing the First Step 100 percent.

When a food addict puts down their binge foods completely – and goes though a period of detoxification, she/he finds that their physical cravings are greatly diminished or completely removed. If the progression of the addictive disease has advanced to seriously affecting the mind, however, they are still likely to eat addictively again. Put most simply, they are in exactly the same state of mind in which they began eating out of control in the first place. They still have euphoric recall, still have and believe a rationalization for eating, still have a tendency to minimize the seriousness of the disease, and still are prone to “mental blank spots” where they simply don’t remember that food is a problem for them at all.

It is the inherent nature of the food-addicted mind that it cannot be changed by understanding or by force of will. These efforts sometimes work in the short run, but inevitably, diseased thinking and/or lack of thought returns so powerfully that the food addict is eventually back in the food and bewildered by how this could have happened again. Not seeing that this is a biochemical disease that has taken over the mind, the food addict is typically filled with guilt and shame.

If food addicts are this powerless over their disease, what can they do? Well, food addicts are indeed powerless, but not helpless. There is one thing that they can do, and that is to work on a spiritual basis to become more willing and able to fully accept their powerlessness. This is truly paradoxical: in seeing more completely how powerless they are food addicts become open to the only answer possible – a power greater than themselves.

The most immediate and practical question of a food addict in this position is: just exactly what can I do to pursue taking a food First Step? Here we have a lot of experience, and we think many readers will find it quite valuable.

To put the material of this essay/chapter in proper context, it is important to say that there are many different ways to do First Step work on food and other addictions. Each of these is effective if done as a spiritual practice. That is to say, as with the more commonly known spiritual practices of prayer and meditation, the food addict needs to do the spiritual practice of First Step work without an expectation of when or how these efforts will bear fruit.

We offer the ACORN approach to doing First Steps because it is a process which has been very effective for food addicts who have not been able to take a spiritual food First Step alone, with the help of a therapist, or even by pursuing one of the many routes offered in food-related Twelve Step fellowships. This is the most rigorous approach to food First Step work with which we are familiar, and it compliments an experiential educational process about food abstinence and learning alternatives to food as coping mechanisms for dealing with difficult feelings.

Food First Step Preparation Assignments

There are eight basic questions which can help a food addict better write a rigorous story of their powerlessness over food.

  1. What are your secrets about food? Be as specific as possible.
  2. What are other secrets? Again, be specific.
  3. What is it that convinces you that you are powerless over food? (Some find it helpful to also write about what convinces them that they are not food addicted.)
  4. What convinces you that your life is unmanageable? (Also, possibly, what convinces you that that it is not unmanageable.)
  5. Make a list of all the foods you have binged on, and any other out of control eating behaviors. Be specific.
  6. Make a list of all the diets you have tried, and everything else you did to try to control your weight or eating.
  7. Make a list of 15 specific times when you were powerless over food.
  8. Make a list of at least 30 negative consequences of being powerless over food – some physical, some mental-emotional, and some spiritual.

It helps to read each of these assignments, one at a time, to another food addict in recovery and get feedback. It is best to read to a whole group of recovering food addicts including ones who have done this type of rigorous food First Step work.


The first two assignments are about secrets – the first about food and the second about the rest of one’s life. From a worldly perspective, this is just a way of getting rigorously honest. If you are willing to self-disclose information that you don’t want to share, then you are on the track to being rigorously honest.

There is also a spiritual dimension to telling “secrets” in food First Step work. Secrets tend to be the information that we are unable or unwilling to tell others. It is information about which we lie to ourselves, and is information we often want to try and keep from God. The primary spiritual problem of addiction is often named “self-will run riot.” This is just as true for chemical dependency on food as it is for alcoholism. Telling secrets is thus a spiritual practice in which a food addict develops the spiritual muscle of willingness by telling others exactly what he/she doesn’t want to reveal.

Twelve Step spiritual fellowships put a great deal of emphasis on “rigorous honesty.” In practice, this means, at least in part, being as specific as possible. What follows is a list of increasingly specific ways of reporting one particular break in abstinence:

  • “I had some problems with my food.”
  • “I wasn’t abstinent – ate something not on my food plan.”
  • “I ate some sugar.”
  • “I ate some ice cream.”
  • “I gulped down a quart of ice cream.”
  • “I ate two separate pints of Haagen-Das Chocolate Chip. I ate so fast the cold of the frozen ice cream gave me a headache, and I kept eating anyway and dripped ice cream all over my shirt and pants.”

A food addict can often tell if they are being sufficiently specific by noticing if sharing that the details cause embarrassment. Embarrassment is one of the many signs of false pride.

Response to Secrets and First Step Writing

In responding to secrets – and any First Step work – the most helpful information is often when other food addicts share ways that they have done the same or similar things with food. This type of sharing begins to relieve some of the original food addict’s embarrassment. As these feelings bleed off, it also has a way of breaking denial.

A food addict often sees themselves as guilty, shameful or just a “bad” person because they are not in control of their food. When they learn that someone else – who they do not see as shameful or bad – has done the same thing, they can often see the other person was actually powerless, and this helps them begin to separate themselves from the disease of food addiction.

Read on about Step 2 of the 12 Steps of Food Addiction.

Step 0 (12 Steps of Food Addiction)

Step One of the Twelve Steps, as they are written in the “Big Book” of Alcoholics Anonymous, reads like this (for our purposes, we are going to change “alcohol” to “food”):

Admitted we were powerless over food -– that our lives had become unmanageable.

What does it mean to admit we are powerless over food? Here’s a dictionary definition of the words:

Admit: to grant as true or valid; a voluntary acknowledgement of the truth; to acknowledge, confess or avow the existence of the truth of <something>.

Powerless: lacking strength or power; helpless; ineffectual; unable

How do I know I am powerless over food? If I have enormous (literally) amounts of evidence, (i.e., facts) that I cannot control my eating. If my experience is that once I pick up sugar and/or flour, (or whatever the addictive food), I am unable to stop. Then I am helpless.

The lie I tell myself is that if I can find the right food plan, the right ingredients, the right sponsor, and develop the right eating habits, then I’ll get abstinent. This keeps me in the same vicious cycle of trying and failing to fix myself. My best thinking is ineffectual.

This is Step Zero of the 12 Steps

I spent over a decade in Step Zero, even though I was sitting in the rooms of a food-based 12 Step program. I never made it to Step One, because that would have meant doing things I didn’t want to do. (Like give up flour products, “sugar-free” candy and gum, letting someone else be in charge of my food plan and committing my food.) I saw people with long-term abstinence doing those things, but in my diseased thinking, it wouldn’t work for me.

The essence of surrender is to give up trying to do it our way. To do fully, willingly, and with no reservation things we don’t want to do, that we may think are “stupid, ridiculous and will never work.” It means giving up trying to make the program work for me and to start working the program.

Often, when we say we are “trying” to …, what we really mean is that we are trying to do it our way.

So, at Step Zero, we haven’t admitted we are powerless over food. We don’t want to give up control of our food. We work away at writing our own food plan, finding a sponsor who has a food plan that will enable us to eat what we want, sponsoring ourselves, and just generally continuing to run the show.

Ironically, we don’t want to give up control over something we don’t have control over! That’s how I finally realized I was at Step Zero.

The Three “A”s

There’s a saying in the Twelve Step rooms: Awareness, acceptance, action.

I was aware that I couldn’t stop eating, but I was in a terrible cycle of trying, over and over, to find what would enable me to eat without the consequences that food addiction inevitably brings. I wanted to believe that even though I couldn’t control my eating, I could “manage” my food plan. It makes as much sense as an alcoholic trying to “manage” their drinking.

Awareness starts with being willing to look at facts. Try answering a few questions with a simple answer of yes or no:

  1. Has my problem with food always gotten worse, never better?
  2. Have I ever worked all the tools of a food recovery program and followed all of a sponsor’s suggestions wholeheartedly?
  3. Is there a food I am not willing to let go of?

People in Step Zero can spend a lot of time (I spent years) not accepting that they are food addicts. If you have read other documents on this website that have helped you identify your problem, then you may have come to this conclusion: I have a problem that I am unable to solve.” If I can’t control my eating, it stands to reason that I can’t manage my recovery, either.

Just like alcoholics, we must accept that we cannot eat like “normal people” (I didn’t really want to eat like them, I just wanted to eat what I wanted to eat and look like them) and that we’re not going to be able to. At some point, if you put a cucumber into alcohol, it becomes a pickle. Taking the pickle out of the alcohol doesn’t turn it back into a cucumber! We have lost control and we will not regain it. That doesn’t mean you won’t be happy, joyous and free.

Read Chapter 3 of AA’s Big Book, change the word “alcohol” to “food,” and see if you can relate to how hard we try not to be who we really are. When I could accept I was a food addict, I began to get free of food.

I needed a lot of help to see through the web of lies I told myself that kept me eating addictively. I got abstinent 11 years ago at an ACORN Primary Intensive©. I had attended many other Intensives, retreats and events over the course of ten years, in addition to my recovery programs, but something finally clicked. I understood that I was powerless over food and that I could not manage my own food.

Now it’s time to take action. The word “admit” is a verb. If we admit that we are powerless over food, then we must have outside (of our heads) help, or the addiction will kill us. Surrendering to structure and support around your food means taking concrete actions, regardless of whether you want to do them, think they’re insane, dumb, embarrassing or just won’t work. Remember, the people who are helping you have thought the same way, but they took the actions because they were willing to work the program. They became abstinent by accepting help and following through. So can you!

Read on about Step 1 of the 12 Steps for Food Addiction