Food Addiction Training: Three Possible Pathways

young women studying

This is the second of two parts

Putting it all together, there are essentially three ways to go about learning how to become a food addiction counselor. You may have to be creative and will certainly need to be persistent in your pursuit, but as the science begins to catch up with the disease and more medical professionals become aware of the addictive additives in processed foods, I expect more training options to open up.

In the meantime, we can be encouraged by the growing number of people joining the battle against those in the junk food industry and the substances they inject into their products. Parallels to the war on tobacco are clear, and that victory established a useful precedent.

Training option #1 is to go the academic route mentioned in part one of this series, and work toward the appropriate masters degree. Consider, however, choosing a school — make sure it’s accredited — where you can put together an independent study focused on current research in food addiction as a substance use disorder.

Sara Levite, a therapist in Portland, Maine, with many food addicts among her clientele, suggests this approach. “As far as I know, there isn’t a graduate school that has a program in it [food addiction counseling] yet,” she says, “but a school such as Goddard College in Vermont,” she adds, “helps people focus on a specific area that they are interested in rather than offering a kind of cookie-cutter program.”

Jennifer Mason Cross, a nutritionist and the founder of Authentic Living & Wellness in Downers Grove, Illinois, also believes this is the best path toward becoming a food addiction counselor. While researching “why we do the things we don’t want to do” with food, she found ample evidence “that we need to address this [disordered eating] as an addiction.”

Joan Ifland, author of Sugars and Flours: How They Make Us Crazy, Sick and Fat, also recommends the academic route. She earned her PhD at Union Institute & University in Cincinnati, Ohio, with a specialization in addictive nutrition. Today she is completing a textbook due out in July called Clinical Practices in Food Addiction Treatment, has organized a community of current and former graduate students working in the field, and hopes to one day develop a formal course for training food addiction counselors. “We’re not going to wait for the DSM to catch up,” she says, lamenting the fact that food addiction is not yet recognized by the medical community as a true disease.

Training option #2 is to participate in the professional training program run by Phil Werdell via ACORN and the Food Addiction Institute. While this course offers no accredited degree or certification, I know of no other option as comprehensive, and certainly none that advocates complete abstinence from addictive foods as strongly.

I should mention here that educator and continuing professional development consultant Mark Cheren, who chairs the FAI (Food Addiction Institute) board of directors, is working to find a way to tackle the certification challenge. He calls this a bit of a “chicken-and-egg” situation.

Establishing a recognized path to certification requires a critical mass of experts in the field who can identify evidence-based best practices and set standards, Cheren said. There are currently not enough professionals who can do that so the Catch-22 is that to get certified, there need to be others already certified. It’s a circular state of affairs.

The dilemma is further exacerbated, he says, by the complexity of food addiction itself. Is it a substance use disorder or can it also be treated as a process disorder? Is there room for treatment that involves “selective abstinence,” an approach that Cheren favors? And what can be done about the fact that people resist the food addict label?

While Cheren and the rest of the FAI board work to resolve these issues, ACORN’s training model continues to expand. The course currently consists of three year-long segments, each of which includes participating in two, week-long “primary intensives” with five to 12 food addicts. An intensive is an experiential opportunity for detoxification that also supports both abstinence and 12-step recovery. It includes group work, lectures, structured activities and individualized reading and writing assignments.

“The program began when a graduate student in addiction studies was searching for an internship in food addiction,” Werdell explains. “There were no such programs.” The ACORN program is patterned after staff training at Glenbeigh, and trainees participate first as clients, second as assistants to experienced staff members, and then as co-professionals.

Werdell is especially pleased by how the training’s 60-plus graduates have begun to use their experience to enrich the field of food addiction. “Twenty or 30 of our trainees are now prepared to work in the field,” he says. “One, a doctor, is improving her practice due to what she has learned, and another has opened a halfway house for food addicts.” Two graduates have started similar training efforts in Iceland and Jordan, spreading abstinence-based recovery internationally.

Training option #3 is one I might put in the “not recommended” category, although it is one of the more popular routes. This track begins with training as a nutritionist and then adds on becoming a coach. This is achieved by having you enroll in classes (many online) that prepare you to become a “personal coach,” a.k.a. life coach, health coach, recovery coach or wellness coach.

Beware! The experts offering these classes often know nothing about food addiction, may try to convince you that you won’t need licensing to put up a shingle in your geographic area (requirements vary wildly across states and borders), and have never studied the brain chemistry behind addictive eating. Instead, these folks focus on teaching you how to patch together a “healthy” food plan (that may or may not include sugar and flour), deal with thorny emotional issues, and most often of all, lose weight.

Huffington Post blogger Stephanie Sacks in “The Health Coach Demystified” urges students to make sure they know what they are getting for their tuition dollars if they go for this type of training. The school she attended, she writes, “effectively combines a highly abbreviated online “nutrition” education with a massive marketing one.”

Are there some nutritionists who do know how to help? Absolutely, but most of them have some connection to other professionals in the substance abuse field. These practitioners include David Wolfe, a bariatric and weight loss dietician at the Steward Medical Group Center for Weight Control in Massachusetts. He is currently designing the food addiction menu plan that Renascent Treatment Group is offering its food addicts who come there to detox and seek long-term recovery. Theresa Wright, another nutritionist, is the founder of the Renaissance Nutrition Center in East Norriton, Pennsylvania, and there is also Diane Rohrbach of FARE Nutrition.

Wolfe has adopted a plan that completely removes trigger foods from the food addict’s diet. The Renascent plan is a weighed and measured menu that removes sugar, flour and grains. It most closely resembles the Grey Sheet and FA 12-step food plans.

Wright is also quite clear in her belief that recovery from food addiction has to include total abstinence from certain substances, although these vary from addict to addict. While some people go crazy over “crunchy and salty,” others are triggered by “sweet and creamy,” Wright says. With food plans, one size does not fit all and she urges a flexible approach.

“Your food plan,” Wright says, “has to eliminate your personal binge foods.” Note that she doesn’t say “minimize” or “moderate” binge foods. Getting other nutritionists to believe this has been difficult. She says she has tried to train 11 nutritionists to help food addicts but has yet to succeed. “They say, ‘I just don’t get it,” or ‘It’s too hard for me,'” she says.

Rohrbach, who has struggled with her own addiction to food, emphasizes the biochemical aspects of the disease while rigorously basing her work on science. Says Rohrbach, “There are many physiological and emotional factors involved in the recovery process based on bio-individuality.” She recommends “personal experience with food addiction and then choosing a training program that speaks to you” as the best route toward becoming a food addiction counselor.

That last comment is important. No training to prepare you for work in the addictions field will succeed without your own passion and dedication. Food addiction is not a simple disease, and is not treatable with willpower and diet. Food addicts need neither. What they do need is help from a properly trained professional who understands the life-and-death nature of the malady.

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