I’ve been in a 12 step group for food addiction for many years. I lose lots of weight, then I relapse and I gain it all back and then I drop out of program and then I go back again and lose the weight. This cycle is exhausting. I’ve been up 70 pounds and down 70 pounds for years. Every time I go back, my sponsor and the program people tell me that I’m an addict and that I can’t trust myself, I can only trust the program and that my addict is an evil, manipulative beast who lives inside of me and lies and cheats and hurts people to get its needs met. I am not sure that I want to be in the program anymore but I am scared that it’s true. That I’m an addict who will never recover and that I have to be in the program otherwise I’ll be lead by my addict. Am I an addict? I’m scared.
– Addict Alissa in Alabama
I want to first direct you to a post I wrote several years ago about 12 step programs for food.
My answer is this. NO YOU ARE NOT AN ADDICT.
12 step programs started as a means to use spirituality to help alcoholics and drug addicts recover. In 1960, a housewife (Roxanne S.) took the big book that her husband had been using to recover from alcoholism and adapted it for her own food issues. She created a diet based on the diet trends of the time and used that to create the world of overeaters anonymous. When OA began their “dignity of choice” (no food plan) – FA was created (food addicts anonymous). This created the premise that you are addicted to food and you need to stick to this diet in order to be okay.
This diet, again was not created by a dietician or a doctor, it was created by a housewife in 1960 and has been used as a bible for the past 60 years. Women lose their periods, lose hair all the time on this. And they are told that THIS IS NORMAL. It’s not good. And the group uses cult-like tactics. It tells its members that if they are not on the program that they are addicts. That they cannot trust themselves. I’m not sure why. I’m not sure why people are excommunicated when they are not able to maintain the program. The program acts like an eating disorder externalized. It tells you that you are bad unless you are able to stick to their rigid food plan. If you stick to the food plan, you are good. This mimics an eating disorder voice. The ED voice tells you that you are bad when you eat certain foods and virtuous when you eat “good” foods. This is why the program is so seductive to so many people. They have an eating disorder OUTSIDE of them to yell at them and shame them. It reflects their inner voice so closely that it feels familiar and safe.
Alcoholics and drug addicts behave in a way that is so much different than people who have eating disorders. This is why they need to be accountable to sponsors and a program. One can go their whole lives without drugs or alcohol, but food needs to be eaten every day!
Addicts tend to act in a way that hurts people outside of them. In extreme cases, addicts lie, they cheat, they steal, they kill people for drugs or drunk driving, they ruin their families…. not everyone of course, but in extreme cases, yes, addicts can be extremely harmful and abusive to the people around them…there is a narcissistic quality to the personality.
People with food issues tend to hurt themselves only. They also tend to take care of people at the expense of themselves. They worry about everyone around them, they care about the people around them, and they tend to be people pleasers. So much of the disordered eating is because they believe that they are not good enough and that they have to change to please other people or to make people like them. They tend to be chronic sacrificers. They are not selfish. They are the opposite. The 12 step program language, when it is extreme just does not translate for people with food issues.
Some groups are better than others, not all are so accusing or breaking you down. But many are. OA is better than FA. OA allows you to choose your abstinence which can be from a behavior (like purging) rather than to a food.
Can people be addicted to THE PROCESS of bingeing and purging? Sort of, yes. Bingeing and Purging releases dopamine and gives a sense of relief. AND like drugs or alcohol, it turns your brain off, at least momentarily so you can stop all the intense thinking that is so painful.
But being a food addict isn’t the same as being an alcoholic or drug addict. If someone is a hard core alcoholic and they abruptly stop drinking, they can wind up having seizures and dying during detox. The same with many drugs. But this doesn’t happen with food. Some people report having flu like symptoms when they “detox” from sugar. But this isn’t really true. What happens is that when people start ketogenic diets, their body goes through a change when they enter ketosis. But it’s not sugar detox – that’s not even a real thing. It’s made up by diet culture to sell “detox diets” and green juice detoxes, etc. In the times that I’ve not had coffee or tea in the morning, after about 24 hours of no caffeine, my body goes through insane withdrawal, I get horrific migraines, I even vomit. Caffeine has a real physical addiction over you. Food doesn’t, not in that same way. I’m sure that many people will reply to this and tell me that they have gone through withdrawal from sugar, my assumption is that it was because you were going into a ketogenic diet which would create these sorts of symptoms.
Now, it’s true that the food industry does some borderline unethical things with food. There are food scientists who use the exact proportions of salt, sugar and fat to make certain packaged food HIGHLY PALATABLE. Which can feel addictive. It can feel like you are unable to stop eating once you start eating these highly palatable foods. But that’s also because you have it in your mind that you are not supposed to be eating these foods, so your brain goes to “this is the last time I can eat this… so I’m going to eat as much as I can and then tomorrow I’m starting my clean eating…” that’s the black and white thinking that is activated. And the black and white thinking can make one feel like an addict.
But you are not an addict. You are a woman who is used to taking care of everyone else except yourself. You attempt to take care of yourself with food and then you hate yourself for it because society conditions us as women to hate ourselves for eating highly palatable foods. We are “bad” when we eat “bad” food. Yet packaged foods are created to be so intensely delicious on our tastebuds, that we feel like we can’t stop eating. So that’s where we wind up landing.
Thank you for this question. It’s such an important topic and distinction.
Be good to yourself. Your self-care is so necessary during this time.