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

“Food Slip” Inventory Worksheet


A “food slip” begins with a spiritual disconnection (from being in “fit spiritual condition”) followed by emotional disconnection (trying to be the “director” and control events) and then the obsession (false craving) with food, which leads to addictive eating.

Recognizing that a slip begins long before the food is eaten, this tool will help you identify what happened at each stage, so that you can learn to back out of relapse.

Of course, if you don’t do your 12 Step work, the food slips will continue to happen until you are in full relapse. This is not a program of slip inventories!

If you are in full relapse, you need to do First Step writing, not a slip inventory.

It’s important to do this within the first 24/48 hours of the slip.  Otherwise, details that are already difficult to recall will disappear entirely into the food addict’s thinking. This is part of a food addict’s “strange mental blank spots.” It’s easier to slip into denial when we don’t remember what we were thinking and how we felt.


DATE of slip _________________ DATE of inv.  _________________

  1. Select lined paper and write on every third line.  You will be putting in other details later. Write a story of what happened leading up to your slip, starting at least four hours before it happened.
  1. Write about the slip as if you were holding a movie camera on yourself. Your actions, thoughts and feelings should be included, right up to “and then I ate…”
  1. Identify where the “emotional relapse” happened.  When did you get angry, start obsessing, try to control a situation, feel overwhelmed by fear. Write the feelings on the empty lines. You may need another food addict to help you with this.
  1. What were the lies you told yourself so that you could eat? “It’s only one bite.”  “I’ll start tomorrow.” “It’s my last chance to eat something yummy.” “Oh, screw it; I’m going to have what I want.”
  1. After that, identify the spiritual disconnection. Did you have a connection to your Higher Power that morning? How long ago did you lose it? That’s when your slip really began.
  1. Read this inventory to two other abstinent food addicts, in addition to your sponsor. You need abstinent people to help you through the blank spots and denial. People that are still in the food are not clear enough to help you.
  1. Write out your plan for how to address the situation the next time it happens (AND IT WILL.)
  1. Finally, what is the spiritual lesson in your slip?

Sample Weekly Menu Planner


Weekly Abstinent Menu for the Week of ___________________







Breakfast Breakfast Breakfast Breakfast Breakfast Breakfast




Meta Meta Meta Meta Meta Meta





Lunch Lunch Lunch Lunch Lunch Lunch



Meta Meta Meta Meta Meta Meta




Dinner Dinner Dinner Dinner Dinner Dinner


Flour: Addictive Substance for Food Addicts

Many food addicts are willing to give up sugar, but not flour. Paradoxically, because we believe it makes us appear “different,” and because flour has been embedded in so many foods, we may have more difficulty surrendering flour than the more obvious issue of sugar.

We fear appearing “different” when we already appear very ill with food addiction. Normal people think we are “just fat.”

Unfortunately, the food industry is willing to cater to “flour-free” advertising. It is considered a niche market in many health food stores that cater to people with celiac disease (a wheat allergy) and gluten allergies. Some food addicts have these medical issues, but specific to food addiction is the issue of bioavailability.

Bioavailability defines the ease with which something is absorbed from the digestive tract. The higher the bioavailability of a food, the greater the total absorption and rate of absorption. The faster a food is absorbed, the more quickly it turns to glucose in the body.

Whole grains have been in the human diet for thousands of years. Milling and grinding grains is a relatively recent. Whole grains take much longer to be digested that refined flours. The more refined a flour is, the more bioavailable it becomes. And the more quickly it turns into a spike of blood sugar followed by a drop in blood sugar.

The perfect recipe for triggering a binge.

We may initially be persuaded by “faux foods,” i.e. “whole-grain bread,” “flour-free bread,” etc. The fact is that such breads are all made from refined grains. It is a matter of definition on a nutritional label. Reading the glycemic index of such foods tells us the truth about their composition.

Many food addicts find that flours made from other grains are just as bioavailable. Rice flour is likely to trigger the same reaction in a food addict as rice syrup: both are highly refined.

How do you know if you are addicted to flour or sugar?

Check out our self-assessment questions on Am I a Food Addict?  Also read about different types of eaters so you can come to your own conclusions.

The Food Addiction Institute has an extensive research on food and the impact to the human body.

If, despite your best efforts, you are not able to control your intake of flour products, you are not alone.

© A.E. Heald, M.Div.

Binge Eating Disorders & Food Addiction

© Phil Werdell, M.A.

Compulsive Overeating vs. Food Addiction

It is frequently difficult to distinguish between “compulsive overeating” and “food addiction,” especially since many recovering people as well as the professionals who support them use the terms interchangeably.

At ACORN, we have come to use the terms “compulsive eating” and “addiction to food” to define two distinctly different problems. We use the term “compulsive overeating” to identify what is now called “binge eating disorder” by psychologists. This psychological disorder derives from unresolved trauma and family dysfunction as well as a lack of cognitive feeling and behavioral skills to deal with difficult emotions.

Chemical Dependence on Food

We use the term “food addiction” to refer to biochemical dependency on food. This problem is described as a person relating to specific food(s) or food in general in a different way than normal people. Food addicts experience physical craving, mental obsession, and a distortion of basic instincts and will.

Ten years ago there was little scientific research proving that food addiction actually existed, much less any research explaining a biochemical basis. Today, because of new genetic science, advances in brain scan research and billions of dollars invested in finding a medication that addresses the obesity epidemic, there is an abundance of studies in a wide variety of academic and medical fields that support a diagnosis of food addiction.

These studies overwhelming support the theory that many of the severely obese and those with advanced eating disorders are also chemically dependent on food. In fact, as a substance disorder, food addiction could be the primary medical problem in those cases.

The amount of specialization in scientific research and the fact that professional journals didn’t allow the use of the term “food addiction,” (because it was not yet confirmed as a medical or mental health disease) has made it difficult to assemble all the research and correlate all the data about chemical dependency on food across sub-disciplines of science. Still, there are peer-reviewed professional journal articles establishing:

  1. A sample of obese people who were not alcoholic or drug addicted and who binged on dense carbohydrates had the same D2 dopamine gene marker as is found in alcoholics and drug addicts.
  2. Dozens of PET scans of binge-eating obese people show the exact same brain image problems as alcoholics and drug addicts.
  3. Definitive research that animals in experimental studies can become addicted to sugar.

Treating Binge Eating vs. Food Addiction

The question is, what are the differences between these two food-related problems, binge eating and food addiction? Is the treatment for these two issues the same or different?

It is probably helpful to begin by saying that in many of cases of food addiction there may also be an underlying psychological eating disorder based on unresolved trauma. Moreover, there is often a misdiagnosis by a health professional, usually because they do not recognize the symptoms of, or are unwilling to identify, a real chemical dependency on food.

The vast majority of those we see in ACORN were either given diets by professionals who did no follow-up to confirm the effectiveness of the diet and/or were treated therapeutically for psycho-dynamic eating disorders. Usually, professionals have not considered whether their client needed to completely abstain from certain food(s).

Taking a Food History

One of the most effective ways of determining if someone is food-addicted is to take a “food history.” Does the person have a history of dieting, then gaining back the same amount of weight, or more? Has the person done serious work in psychotherapy, only to find that their bingeing was unaffected? Are there foods that the person feels they cannot live without and are unwilling to forego? Are there foods that the person is unable to stop eating, even though they may have tried many times?

These questions are remarkably similar to many that are asked of alcoholics and drug addicts at the beginning of treatment. As most alcoholics and drug addicts are frequently unable to disentangle themselves from their substances without help, many people that are food-addicted require additional medical assistance and Twelve Step support to withdraw from their “drug of choice.”

Sugar: Addictive Substance for Food Addicts

As food addicts, most of us find we have to pay a great deal of attention to what is in the content of the food we eat. Unlike alcoholics and drug addicts, we cannot just “stop eating.” However, we do have to surrender our binge foods and addictive eating habits as part of our recovery.

After making a list of our binge foods, we can identify the substances that we are addicted to in order to surrender them to our Higher Power so that we don’t have to eat them anymore.

“Surrender,” in this context, means doing something we don’t want to do in order to recover. Many of us are not able to surrender our binge foods without the structure and support of other abstinent food addicts.

Despite what we are doing to our bodies because of our food addiction, many of us are unable to remember what the addiction is actually doing to us. We can only remember how “good” it tastes. This is called “euphoric recall,” and is a classic symptom of addiction.

How do you know if you are addicted to sugar or flour?

The simplest way is to use the test provided by the book Alcoholics Anonymous, written eighty years ago. We can just change the text from using “alcohol” to using “food:”

Try some controlled eating. Step into a bakery and have one piece of candy, one donut, one piece of binge food, and then stop. Stick to a diet and maintain your weight loss.

Try it more than once. If you are like us, you will no more be able to do this than an alcoholic can step into a bar and have one beer.

Check out our self-assessment questions on Am I a Food Addict?  Also read about different types of eaters so you can come to your own conclusions.

If you think you might be a food addict, then you need to know a lot more about what foods are the most likely to be addictive, even though you may not want to give them up. Most food addicts don’t want to give up their binge foods; they just want to avoid the consequences of eating.

For the purposes of this article, we will address sugar and flour, the two most common substances that food addicts become addicted to. Although some food addicts report addictions to fatty, salty and volumes of food we will address those substances in a later article.


Sugar is a carbohydrate, and we often think of it only as the white or brown stuff, but sugar is also a natural part of many other foodstuffs such as lactose in milk, maltose in grain, fructose in fruit, sucrose (refined sugar), and more.

The simple refined carbohydrate, crystalline table sugar, is first extracted from sugar cane with the bulk and fiber being left behind. It is then purified, filtered, concentrated, and boiled down to sugar crystals produced out of the syrup. Substances such as sulfur dioxide, milk of lime, carbon dioxide, charcoal from charred beef bones, and calcium carbonate are used in this industrial refining process as purifying agents.

Flour is also a refined carbohydrate, and for many of us who are addicted to sugar, we find that flour acts in our bodies the same way sugar does: it gives us a “high.” Often flour and sugar come together in a food package – equivalent to high-quality crack cocaine to a food addict.

Brown sugar is simple white sugar with a bit of molasses added back in, or colored with caramel.

The food industry has developed enormous sidelines of “diet” food, usually labeled “Sugar-Free” and “Fat-Free.” Given the many different varieties of sugar, derivations of sugar such as Splenda, sugars formed from alcohol (not surprisingly, these can be very addictive), chemical sweeteners, (the “polys”) artificial sweeteners such as aspartame, saccharine, etc., the label “Sugar-Free” usually means the food industry is simply using a different kind of sugar. For some food addicts, these non-sugars can have the same impact as refined sugar: the inability to eat reasonable amounts.

Conversely, it is worth noting that many of the foods labeled “Fat-Free” are loaded with sugar. And “Fat-Free” certainly doesn’t mean calorie-free.

Sugar is rapidly converted in the blood to fat (triglycerides), which increases obesity, heart disease, and diabetes. It is devoid of vitamins, minerals, or fiber; it is an empty food. Its main purpose in the food industry is a stabilizer, flavor enhancer and appetite stimulant.

In 1973, the per capita consumption of sugar and other highly refined sweeteners (such as high-fructose corn syrup) was 126 pounds a year. Today, it’s 158 pounds – an increase of 26 percent. During the same time period, the percent of overweight Americans increased by nearly 20 percent.

Here is a list of types of sugar that are commonly found in foods we find in most grocery stores. Many labels list more than one kind of sugar; only the total grams of sugar give a true idea of how much is actually in the package. Although some artificial sweeteners have no caloric value, their impact on our bodies can be just as deadly as those with calories, if we cannot stop eating it.

  • amasake
  • apple sugar
  • Barbados sugar
  • bark sugar
  • barley malt
  • beet sugar
  • brown sugar
  • brown rice sugar
  • buttered syrup
  • evaporated cane juice, or cane-juice crystals (non-FDA approved terms for sugar)
  • cane sugar
  • caramel
  • carob syrup
  • chicory syrup (non-FDA approved terms (non GRAS and non-CFR compliant) for high fructose syrup)
  • corn sweetener
  • corn syrup
  • corn syrup solids
  • date sugar
  • dextrin
  • dextrose (refined corn sugar)
  • diatase
  • diastatic malt
  • Diglycerides
  • Disaccharides
  • D-tagalose
  • ethyl maltol
  • Florida crystals
  • fructan
  • Fructooligosaccharides (FOS)
  • fructose
  • fruit juice
  • fruit juice concentrate
  • Galactose
  • Glucitol
  • Glucoamine
  • Gluconolactone
  • glucose
  • glucose solids
  • Glucose polymers
  • Glucose syrup
  • Glycerides
  • Glycerine
  • Glycerol
  • Glycol
  • Hexitol
  • golden sugar
  • golden syrup
  • grape sugar
  • high-fructose corn syrup
  • honey
  • inulin syrup (non-FDA approved terms (non GRAS and non-CFR compliant) for high fructose syrup)
  • inversol
  • invert sugar
  • isomalt
  • invert sugar
  • karo syrup
  • lactose
  • lactitol ++
  • levulose
  • malt syrup
  • malted barley
  • maltodextrin (derived from the corn “wet refining” process)
  • maltose ++
  • malitol ++
  • mannitol ++
  • maple syrup
  • microcrystalline cellulose
  • molasses
  • Monoglycerides
  • Monosaccarides
  • Nectars
  • Pentose
  • Polydextrose++
  • Powdered sugar
  • Raisin juice
  • Raisin syrup
  • raw sugar
  • refiner’s syrup
  • rice malt
  • rice syrup
  • saccharides
  • sorbitol ++
  • sorghum
  • Sorghum syrup
  • Sucanat
  • Sucanet
  • sucrose (from cane or beet)
  • sugar cane
  • trisaccharides
  • turbinado sugar
  • xylitol ++
  • yellow sugar
  • zylose

++ Sugar alcohols aren’t sugars or artificial sweeteners. The name “sugar alcohols” comes from the fact that their structure resembles sugar, and they’re chemically similar to alcohol. They’re typically genetically modified from corn or wheat.

Those food addicts who are also addicted to or have an allergy to wheat receive a double impact from sugar alcohols.

Experts say that sugar alcohols can cause stomach cramps, bloating, diarrhea, and anal leakage, because our bodies poorly absorb them. In large quantities, they’re non-GRAS (Generally Recognized As Safe) and some research shows that they can cause cancer.

Foods with average added sugars

  • Applesauce contains 11 g
  • Peanut Butter contains 18g
  • Flavored Yogurt contains 23g
  • Fruit drinks contain 40g

A single can of soda contains 12 teaspoons of added sugar. That’s 120 percent of the USDA’s recommended daily intake of sugar.

In 2005, researchers examined the impact of sugar on the immune system. A published study at the National Institute of Health documented the impact of sugar intake on the immune system: Sugar steals the ability of white blood cells to destroy bacteria. White blood cells are known as “phagocytes” and phagocytic tests show that a couple of teaspoons of sugar can sap their strength by 25 percent. A large helping of pie and ice cream renders your white cells 100 percent helpless. This effect lasts from 4 to 5 hours. Consider a 900 ml serving of processed and packaged orange juice or one 683 ml of cola—either of these will depress the immune system by 50 percent, 30 minutes after ingestion and this will last for hours! Consider if you have sugar at every meal, which many do by eating processed foods alone, that the immune system is constantly ineffectual.

For food addicts, who binge on enormous amounts of sugar, eat meals consisting of large amounts of processed food, or diets consisting almost totally of binge foods, the impact could be exponential. For us, to eat this way is to die.

© A.E. Heald, M.Div.