A Food Plan as a Spiritual Tool

Diets vs. Food Plan

In the long term, diets do not work for compulsive eaters and food addicts, but we still need a way to give structure and support to our physical recovery. Since we have become powerless over food, a food plan must be used in a spiritual context. Thus, a food plan is a spiritual tool; it is an instrument for implementing “surrendered” food abstinence.

Everyone’s nutritional requirements are subtly different, but there are general principles and patterns which work for most people. When the food addict is looking for an effective food plan, the situation is similar. Every food addict must look to his or her own food history and be rigorously honest about what has worked and what has not worked. Each of us must check out for ourselves whether a particular food plan works for us in practice. Yet there are principles and patterns which have developed in our collective experience and these provide a helpful guide to compulsive eaters wanting to choose the best food plan for their recovery program.

Issues of Nutrition and General Health vs. Issues of Compulsion and Addiction

It is helpful first to see that we can separate the important issues about nutrition and general health from the issue of compulsive eating and food addiction. While these two types of issues can often over lap, it is practical to consider them separately. Nutrition is an evolving science, and there is still much controversy about basic questions like – What is a healthy weight? What food groups are essential and in what balance? What are the most effective strategies for weight loss (or gain) and long term maintenance? How is diet best supplemented by exercise?

The compulsive overeater needs to answer these questions just as much as the normal eater does. We recommend consulting a doctor, dietitian or other trained health professional regarding these matters. However, as compulsive eaters and food addicts we have an additional question: What do we do when we have a healthy diet to follow and cannot do it? Or when we cannot maintain a healthy eating process and weight over time?

If we are powerless to eat in a basically healthy way – much less in a manner conducive to optimal health, we obviously need help beyond ourselves, and it is in this area that a fellowship – and most importantly the Twelve Step Program – provide real practical experience, strength and hope. As is often mentioned, though, the problem of “putting down” food is different, and more complicated, than putting down alcohol or another addictive drug. The decision regarding exactly how we should abstain and/or from what specific foods we should abstain must be considered in the context of what food we do need and want to eat. This is where a food plan becomes most helpful.


Salad with dressing on the side and scaleIf you are chemically dependent on specific foods or food in general, you are likely to have to go through a period of detoxification. There is no choice here either. Some compulsive eaters will experience immediate relief when they find an abstinent food plan that works for them. This sometimes last several months or even years, though at one point almost all compulsive eaters need to learn to be abstinent when the going is really rough. For many food addicts, however, it gets worse before it gets better. The symptoms of physical detoxification can be very subtle but they can also be quite severe.

Withdrawal symptoms may vary from subtle anxieties to strong physical cravings. Other symptoms of detoxification can include headaches, irritability, fatigue or insomnia. Withdrawal varies for different foods and from one food addict to another Most of all it is possible to have the thought that you have to eat or that certain feelings will be unbearable without food. It is always good to remember that no one has yet starved to death between meals and that feelings any particular feeling is not dangerous in itself… If we don’t eat, any feeling will eventually pass.

This is simple to say but often quiet difficult to do. Food addicts often need increased structure and support for their recovery in the first week to as long as a month because of going through detoxification. Some need extra structured support for much longer.

Similarly, most of us were eating over our feelings, using food essentially to medicate or numb our feelings. We needed to find and use other ways of dealing with even the most difficult feelings if we wanted to stay abstinent and recover. The most common way for food addicts to begin dealing with new and difficult feelings is to surrender to more structure and support: talk more with other food addicts, go to meetings, and use the tools. For long term recovery, this means a thorough working of the Twelve Steps.

It is in this context that we can look at the basic principles of choosing a food plan. Some compulsive eaters need to follow only one or two of these principles in order to discover a food plan that works. Others have to use almost all of these principles. Here again, it is important to base our choice on our best understanding and acceptance of what may be necessary to recovery from this disease. Many of us find it useful, even necessary, to make our choice of food plan with the help of other compulsive eaters or food addicts who are abstinent and who have a food plan that works for them.

Why Use the Term “Food Plan”?

Since most of us have been unable to eat or diet like normal eaters, we choose not to use the word “diet”. To us, diets mean something we can follow by reason and will power alone. We have come to accept that we cannot manage our food by self-control alone. Willpower failed us utterly, so we surrender to our powerlessness over food. The purpose of the food plan is to make this surrender more specific.

Few compulsive eaters chose a food plan because this is always the way they want to eat the rest of their life. Rather, we chose to surrender to a specific food plan because we have surrendered to the fact that we are powerless over food. There is real choice in deciding to use a food plan and what specific plan to use, but the first and most important decision is choosing to use a food plan – and practice surrendering to it – that works for the specific ways we are addicted to food.

There are some choices which are not available to each of us.

Most abstinent food addicts have an abundance of choice regarding what they eat. There are over two hundred different foods in most grocery stores, and only a handful are foods most of us find addictive. However, there is no choice about which food plans or principle will work and which will not. If you are addicted to a specific food, for example, it is not likely you will be able to include this food in your plan and have an abstinence that works.

Most compulsive eaters would like to be able to eat everything they want, exactly the way that they want, and suffer no consequences. Most of us would like to eat like normal eaters, but this choice is simply not available to us if we also want recovery. There is no such thing as surrendered food abstinence without giving up foods and ways of eating that your disease has long been wanting dearly.

Principle #1: A Food Plan as a Principle of Surrender

The simplest food plan is a “one day at a time” commitment to no compulsive eating.

Another version of this principle is “Eat when hungry. Stop when full.” Some food addicts who see this as a spiritual problem are able, with the help of the fellowship, to use this simple principle as an effective spiritual practice.

The problem, of course, is that most food addicts would not have sought help if they were able to do this. Many are mystified by the very idea of developing a spiritual practice in relationship to food. However, for some people, when they try to commit to this principle in a spiritual context – praying , doing the tools and Steps of the program, and opening to the support of the fellowship and other spiritual support – what was previously impossible becomes possible.

It is worth noting here that almost all food addicts have needed much more specific guidelines.

Principle #2: A Food Plan With Specific “Bottom Lines”

The first food plan often mentioned is now called “301.” It is a good example of the use of bottom lines. The 301 Food Plan contains three bottom lines: three meals a day, nothing in between, one day at a time. The bottom lines are specific commitments of surrender. The idea of abstaining from eating between committed meals was a conscious adaptation of the AA principle of not drinking at all. Focusing on one day at a time is also a practical AA practice which keeps us focused on the present and the possible.

Many who use a “301” food abstinence find they need further specific bottom lines about what they do eat. For example, a common variation of the 301 plan adds another specific bottom line, for example, “moderate meals” and/or “no seconds.” Others commit to a “balance of food categories”. Still others break their food plan up into more small meals or having a planned snack at a time in the day when hunger is chronic. Each of these is a general bottom line based on an assessment of past food history.

Those needing even further definition will use a specific “exchange diet” or “point system” as their food plan. Normal eaters often use doctor prescribe diabetic diet, a calorie counting system of a commercial weight loss program or an individually designed exchange diet from a dietitian. If a compulsive eater uses such a diet a food plan, the difference is an acceptance that s/he cannot do this by self-control, i.e. not by willpower or alone. So it is done in a prayerful context and/or by committing the food daily to another food addict. Food addicts learn to do the spiritual part of this work by sharing with each other and by consciously working the Twelve Steps.

Since many compulsive eaters also have eating disorders, it is not uncommon to include eating behaviors as bottom lines. Among the most common are “no purging,” “no restricting,” “no use of laxatives or diuretics.” Those who are compulsive over exercisers will often make a maximum time limit for exercise as a bottom line… On the other side of the exercise issue, many compulsive over-eaters find they have an aversion to exercise. This suggests that they have a minimum amount of exercise as a bottom line and a part of their abstinence commitment.

Sometimes these positive or pro-health parts of the food plan are called “top lines”. An exercise commitment is one of the most common top lines, for example, walking briskly at least a half an hour a minimum of five days a week. Other examples of top line include “sitting down while eating”, “eating slowly”, or “preparing meals I like to eat”

There is one type of bottom line, eliminating a specific food or a category of foods that is worth addressing separately.

Principle #3: A Food Plan Eliminates Binge Foods

For those who are chemically dependent on food, the basic concept is to eliminate the food(s) on which you binge and which trigger a binge. A way to begin is to make a list of all your specific binge foods. Then – best with another food addict who is abstinent – look over the list. Are there foods that are common to all your binges? The most likely suspects include: sugar, flour, wheat, caffeine, excess fat and salt. For food addicts, these foods often act in their bodies like drugs. Sometimes you have to look very carefully. Someone saying that they binge on salad may eat their greens with a dressing that contains any or all of the most common drug foods. Someone who thinks of themselves as bingeing on meat might always use steak sauce, always have rolls or bread with their protein, or just chose especially fat portions. If the food comes already prepared, it is always necessary to identify the ingredients with which it is cooked.

A practical application is to have a “bottom line” for certain highly addictive foods, e.g., no sugar. Many compulsive overeaters have even more specific ways of committing to not using a specific food. Regarding sugar addiction, for example, the more sensitive the compulsive eater is to sugar, the more thoroughly and completely sugar needs to be restricted. Some examples of common sugar bottom lines in order of progressive rigor:

– no added sugar
– no refined sugar or obvious sugars, e.g. corn syrup
– no hidden sugars up to the fifth ingredient
– no sugars, hidden sugars or artificial sweeteners

Each of these “levels” of abstinence is common.

How do you tell what level is appropriate? The answer is usually very pragmatic. What level of abstinence eliminates physical cravings – or minimizes them to the point you can commit what you eat and eat what you commit? What level works over time, i.e. 30 days, 90 days, a year? Some food addicts find a level that works and never needs to be changed over a long, stable period of abstinence. Some find that after a period of strict abstinence, they are able to reintroduce some foods in moderate portions. Others find that the road gets narrower and their bottom line has to become more restrictive over the years.

Principle #4: A Food Plan based on weighing and measuring.

What about compulsive eaters who have binged on almost every food? This is not uncommon, and there is a common answer: weigh and measure. For those who are addicted to volume, the use of a cup, scale and measuring spoons is not a form of dieting but rather a physical aid to portion control. The cup and scales are for these food addicts what glass are for the near sighted, a cane or crutches for the injured, or a wheel chair of the disabled.

Many compulsive overeaters experience mental distortion regarding food volume similar to the distorted body images of all those with eating disorders. The cups, scales and spoons become an aid to the untrustworthy eye. For other food addicts, they are addicted to volume – always or frequently wanting more (or less) food even when all reason says their food plan is a healthy portion. In these cases, the cups and scales become a counter balance to unwanted impulses. Paradoxically for many compulsive eaters, weighing and measuring is an incredibly practical way of simplifying a very complex problem, e.g. dealing with a food plan that has a very large number of variables.

Many food addicts who had resisted mightily the idea of weighing and measuring report later that, after they tried it for a while, they found a great relief. Rather than experiencing it as harshly restrictive, they say that they actually feel much freer when they weigh and measure. It helps relieve the obsession with food before, during and after a meal. Compulsive eaters who have weighed and measured know for certain that they have eaten exactly what they committed.

There are variations of weighing and measuring. Some weigh and measure all their food; some will weigh and measure only their protein, starch and dressing Others will weigh and measure at home but not at restaurants or social events. Some will measure their vegetables and starches in a cup; others will weigh them. Some will weigh and measure for the first 30 days, 90 days or a year, then do it only when they feel anxious, notice they are getting sloppy or just want the practice of surrender. There are some with long time, stable abstinence and recovery who have simply integrated surrender to weighing and measuring into their food plan one day at a time for life.

As with bottom lines, the decision about weighing and measuring comes down to individual choice – usually in collaboration with a sponsor – based upon past experience and upon what works and what does not work when it is tried. What is important – as with other parts of a food plan – is to first make a decision then do the spiritual work of staying surrendered to that commitment.

Principle #5: Begin by using the Food Plan that works for others

In early recovery or even coming back from a relapse, we are often ill-equipped to deal with all the choices of a food plan. We just know that what we have been doing has not worked, and we need to try something that has worked for someone else. So, it is not surprising to find many compulsive eaters begin by choosing a sponsor or meeting where they see definite recovery, then surrendering to the food plan that their sponsor or other abstinent food addicts are using.

The food plan might be “301,” or it might be a very specific written food plan that has evolved from a sponsor’s individual experience or it might be a very detailed weighed and measured food plan that has worked for a whole group of compulsive overeaters over time.

When those who were specifically addicted to sugar, flour and wheat wanted meetings together, they formed Food Addicts Anonymous and they also developed another highly structured food plan. Within Overeaters Anonymous, there was also a movement called HOW which was for those who needed more structure and support; part of this structure is a weighed and measured food plan with no sugar, or flour. See Overeaters Anonymous.

Along with many further variations, these plans have a lot in common. They are all sugar, flour and alcohol-free. They all have a specific exchange plan. They all recommend weighing and measuring. Someone simply addicted to sugar, flour and volume could use any of these plans and get abstinent. Yet for others the details are all very important.

Some using the HOW plan have not gotten abstinent until they gave up wheat and looked at the dozens of hidden sugars itemized in the FAA literature. Some have tried the FAA and HOW plans and not gotten abstinent until they eliminated all carbohydrates and followed the even stricter guidelines of Gray Sheet. What all these specific plans have in common, though, is that abstinence is defined both simply (surrender to a whole plan) and in great detail (there is an answer to most of the endless specific questions that come up when abstaining from food.)

Many of those with long time (decades) of abstinence in OA started by practicing surrender to one of these food plans, and many continue to use this more structured approach to abstinence for years and years, If this is the only food plan that have been stably abstinent on, they decide “if it works, don’t fix it.”

Principle #6: A Food Plan focused on issues of unwillingness

Of course, those coming off of a relapse will have some experiences of their own to build upon. Anyone abstinent in the past for a year or more using a specific food plan has some very valuable information about their disease and about a food plan that worked at least physically at that time. The food addict who has struggled for a long time in OA and not been able to put together any substantial period of back to back abstinence also knows a lot; this food addict knows a lot about what does not work.

It makes good sense to learn from this experience, to put down the foods or eating behaviors that were previously surrendered when abstinent, to inventory the relapse experience, and to be rigorously honest about what we didn’t want to do or were outright unwilling to do.

Probably the most important difference between a diet and a food plan is that most food plans include an aspect of surrender. Those on food plans surrender specific food(s) or eating behaviors that they did not want to give up or actually found that they were unable to give up when they tried. They need to surrender to more help and support or, as it is frequently talked about in Twelve Step programs, a Power greater than oneself.

While diets are temporary deprivation for a desired goal, food plans frequently deal with exactly the food issues where we think we will be deprived, even “unacceptably deprived”, if we put them down. This is not unlike the situation in alcohol and other drug addictions. It is common for the addict to think that they “have to have” their drug, that life will not be worth living with out it, even that they will die if they don’t use. This is the nature of compulsive eating and active food addiction, too.

So, unlike the normal eater who is dieting – or even the person with an eating disorder who is not addicted – the food addict needs to deal with deprivation. That is what a surrendered food plan is all about. In fact, a sponsor can often help a sponsee see the way that their food plan is not working by pointing out the specific food they are unwilling to give up or the specific recovery behavior they are unwilling to include.

The purpose of a food plan is to eliminate just those foods and behaviors over which we have in the past been powerless. We do this first by accepting the support of the program (e.g. sponsor and meetings), second by eliminating the most difficult food just one day at time (we can do for one day many things that we think we cannot do for a life time) and then, most importantly by having a very practical spiritual practice (for example, the Twelve Steps) which help us deal with this very problem of willingness.

Beginning the Process of Abstinence

There are two schools of thought about the strategy for surrendering to a food plan. One says that it is best to proceed incrementally. The other says that it is best eliminate all dangerous food and triggers at once. There is an abundance of experience that both of these strategies work well for some people, and many “true believer” arguments that their way is the only way among those for whom their food plan or their strategy has worked.

There are many old–timers who will say very truthfully and helpfully that their abstinence evolved. Maybe they were only willing and able to give up “junk food” or eating between meals at first, but they did, and this showed them both that abstinence worked and that there were further issues of abstinence to which they needed to attend.

Also, there are people who were able to use certain foods in early recovery, e.g., diet drinks, but later the caffeine or the NutraSweet or some other ingredient was something they could not handle; as they would say the disease progresses even while we are in recovery. On the other hand, recovery is also progressive; what we could tolerate physically in early recovery becomes a problem as we recover more mentally, emotionally and spiritually.

There are also old-timers who will say that until they put down all their major addictive foods, they were not able to maintain their abstinence from any of them. They found that when they put down ice cream, they eventually picked up bread, and bingeing on bread brought them back to the sugar. Others found that though they appeared to have control regarding a particular food, e.g. wheat or a sugar-free desert, it was giving them low-level cravings which in the long run made it impossible for them to sustain their abstinence over their major binge foods, or they started overeating with volume.

To the newcomer, all these details frequently appear very confusing. This is especially true because for many compulsive eaters, there are food plans and approaches to food abstinence that work for them but not other food addicts. And, of course, there are often food plans which will not work for them no matter how much other food addicts say that this is the only way. It is clear that while recovering food addicts have a lot to share with each other, we are only human, and this means that we all need a Power greater than ourselves.

We have this piece of advice: action is usually better than inaction. After consultation with those we most trust – and, if we choose, a period of prayer, it is always useful for the food addict to practice surrender. Even if there are ways that we are unwilling to surrender, it is helpful to practice going to the lengths that we can. Even if a particular surrender plan is not exactly the one that will work, it is worth exercising our spiritual muscles. In the matter of food plans, act boldly that learning and grace may abound.

Now About Weight

We compulsive eaters have taken on some very foolish beliefs about weight. On the one hand, some of us have internalized the dangerous social standard that you can never be too thin or have a flat enough stomach. On the other hand, some of us adopted that irrational position that, since there is no perfect weight for everyone, then we can be whatever size we want to be. All of us have harbored our own fair share of crazy thinking about size and body image. So, what are we to do about establishing a goal weight?

First, as in other matters of our food plan, we tried to be honest, open and willing. We needed to take a long, hard look at our history. We needed to consider the feedback and advice of others, including health professionals, especially if our initial response was reactive. We needed to be open to the possibility that our thinking about our weight was inaccurate and a part of our disease. We need to examine any position we hold too rigidly and consider it might be “self-will run riot. ”

Whatever our goal weight turns out to be, we must be willing to grow towards it. Some of us found that when we put our focus on being abstinent one day at a time, the problem of weight took care of itself. Still many of us find that weighing once a month is a healthy reality check. We still need to commit an appropriate number of calories per day. The scale does not lie, but in our disease, we food addicts do. If we are not making progress towards or maintaining a healthy weight, it is likely that we are either lying to ourselves about our food or need to consult a health professional.

Often we needed to rely at first on others who we trust in this matter. If they understand compulsive eating and food addiction, they are likely to say put your focus on surrendering to just being abstinent one day at a time, and proceed on the issue of weight patiently. Only God can judge our ideal weight. Considering our food plan as a spiritual tool and our abstinence as a spiritual practice will lead us to an answer over time.

There is a cautionary note: if you are committing to any food plan, especially to a highly restrictive plan or one of the more structured plans, it is very important to check it with your doctor or a dietician. Food addicts frequently have additional food-related health issues, and they can be important, even life threatening.

For example, diabetics would not be wise to have a food plan that included sugar. Those with thyroid problems may need to calculate their calorie needs differently. Those with hypoglycemia may need to break their food up into five or six small meals. Those who have had intestinal by-pass operations will not be able to eat meals with large volume. Those with specific food allergies will not be able to eat other specific foods, even though they are not addicted to them. Those on medications for any number of other illnesses will need to be sure that their food plan does not interfere with the working of these medications.

The good news is that these strategies have worked for tens of thousands of food addicts, and that if one strategy does not work, you can try another one. There are a couple of general rules: First, generally, it is best to begin working to abstain from what will kill you the fastest; second, if you are unable to abstain when you give it your all, surrender to more structure and support.

What does more structure and support mean in practice?

  1. Going to more recovery group meetings.
  2. Making calls to more people who are abstinent.
  3. Looking seriously at professional support or treatment.

Surrendering to a food plan is often just the beginning. There is also a process of surrender: committing our food one meal or one day at a time. Here again, OA brings the experience of tens of thousands of compulsive eaters over forty years, and probably the most common practice among all the OA’s who have achieved and maintained long term abstinence is the use of a food sponsor.

Using a Sponsor for Food Addiction

As part of a 12 Step Program, a food sponsor is usually another food addict who is abstinent themselves. They are a guide in defining a surrendered food plan. Equally important, they can offer structure and support in the day-to-day practice of surrendering to the plan. One simple common process generally works like this:

  1. Write down your food for the day specifically, before eating
  2. Read your committed foods for the day to your sponsor
  3. Go to any length to keep your commitment (checking back with your sponsor if a problem arises)
  4. Be rigorously honest with your sponsor about whether or not you kept your commitment, after you eat your meals.

As with other aspects of abstinence, there are many variations in practice. Some begin by just committing “bottom lines.” Some people just write their food down and don’t commit it. Some begin committing specifically, but later commit generically. Some write their food down and check in with a sponsor afterwards in order to be accountable. It is useful information, though, that a majority of compulsive overeaters with long term abstinence have gone through a period of time – often a quite long period of time – when they committed their food very specifically on a daily basis to a sponsor.

Committing your food to a sponsor has many advantages. First, it means that we are not trying to deal with our food alone. For those are not able to deal with their food by themselves, this makes a lot of sense.

Second, the process of committing our food and keeping our commitment builds a whole new set of habits and attitudes over time. In the planning, preparing, eating and cleaning up after our meals there are dozens of small actions, many of which need to be changed over time.

Third, the simple act of not making decisions about our food by ourselves is, for the compulsive eater, one of the best ways to practice surrender. Since for many of us a surrendered abstinence is the only thing that works with our food, it is always a plus to develop our spiritual muscles.

In developing a “surrendered” abstinence, many food addicts are taking on the most difficult task of their lives. After all, for many of us, food seemed to be the most important thing in our lives. For others of us, food was a major comfort in times of pain, stress and celebration. For most of us, we only came to to get help when we began to see that we were – or were becoming – completely powerless over food. Many of us had to face the important though daunting task of improving our relationship to God, as we understand God. Seen this way, developing good food abstinence is one of the most important things we can ever do in our lives.

For a few of us, this comes easily, but this is not the rule. For most the process of surrendering to a food abstinence that works is a long, educative process. Some find it useful to see that the process often parallels the process of grief. In fact, we are often grieving the foods we most wanted and the very idea of ourselves as being able to control our own lives. There is a process of grieving, and – while it is not usually a straight and linear path – there do seem to be stages:

  1. Denial
  2. Bargaining
  3. Compliance
  4. Anger
  5. Fear
  6. Sadness
  7. Surrender, i.e., acceptance

That we need to move through each of these stages – and usually keep moving through them – is what makes surrender a spiritual practice. A food plan is a tool in this process.

The Promise? Not just Abstinence but a Life Beyond Our Wildest Dreams

At one time, most of us saw a surrendered food abstinence as hopelessly impossible. If we were to be abstinent, it would have to be with reservations. Then we complied, as best as we could, one day at a time. We found it was possible, but we were angry, afraid and sad. Was this all there was to life? However, when we stayed with the practice, allowed our selves to feel our feelings and kept at working the Twelve Steps, we discovered a serene abstinence. While many of us had to work hard – over and over again go to any length, when this joyous abstinence arrived, we experienced it almost entirely as a gift. That is the wonderful paradox of the program, while abstinence often begins as a surrender we do not want to make, it becomes the key to a life beyond our wildest dreams, and we are grateful.

© Phil Werdell, M.A.

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.