Beyond Overeaters Anonymous: More 12-Step Programs to Help Food Addicts

Beating the odds to lose and keep the weight off is pretty challenging. Commercial and professional diet programs are helpful in the short term, but long-term results are dismal. The reason? When the addictive nature of food hasn’t been addressed it can sabotage an otherwise powerful food plan.

In my previous post, I talked about 12-step programs specifically for food addiction. Some of these programs have demonstrated prolonged success and thus have shown that the focus on addiction is the better prescription for many people. Fortunately, there are many food-related 12-step fellowships available. Last month I introduced two of the earliest programs: Overeaters Anonymous (OA) and GreySheeters Anonymous. There are at least nine other food-related fellowships.

While OA was the first of the food-related 12-step programs and is still the largest, one of its earlier offshoots was Overeaters Anonymous 90-Day. Recall that in the early days, GreySheeters split from OA because GreySheeters wanted their members to adhere to a particular food plan that omitted sugar and flour; OA’s policy is to not endorse any plan of eating. 90-Day members held to the OA principle of not pushing a meal plan, but their format dictates another deviance, that “only those with three or more months of continuous 90-day format abstinence” are allowed to speak at 90-Day meetings. Its mother group, OA, does not have such a stipulation on speakers. People can speak even if they are “still in the food,” — that is, still eating compulsively. 90-Day members claimed that anything said by people who are still eating addictively is not helpful or hopeful for those members who want to abstain from trigger foods. The requirement of having 90 days’ abstinence before speaking was picked up by many 12-step food groups afterward.

Other OA Spin-Offs

At least three other 12-step fellowships that evolved from OA have formally recognized the addictive nature of food. Each tends to highlight the physical or biochemical aspects of the disease. Their names — Food Addicts Anonymous (FAA), Food Addicts in Recovery Anonymous (FA) and Recovery From Food Addiction, Inc. (RFA) — are only subtly different and the structure of each group is based on the same 12 steps.

Like GreySheeters, FAA and RFA both promote adherence to a specific food plan. FAA eliminates sugar, flour and wheat, but FA does not. GreySheeters eliminates these, along with grains. RFA promotes a food plan based on the writings of Kay Sheppard, author of Food Addiction: The Body Knows. Moreover, FAA, FA, RFA and GreySheeter all recommend abstinence that is “weighed and measured.”

While FAA provides a copy of its food plan on its website, FA and GreySheeters will not provide the actual plan to non-members. The belief behind this reluctance to share the meal plan is that the plan alone is insufficient to maintain long-term sobriety: Why set up someone to lose weight without the necessary support and guidance to maintain this loss over the long haul? Essentially, it is the group support that is the main ingredient for success between commercial programs such as Weight Watchers and 12-step programs. Admittedly, Weight Watchers does offer group support but they are less frequent (primarily once-weekly to monthly) and voluntary. In 12-step programs, meetings are daily and mandatory. Food addiction is a tough addiction to beat. “You have to take the tiger out of the cage three times a day” is a common adage heard in 12-step communities for food addiction, so people (especially those new to the program) need help handling the “tiger” of overeating on a daily basis.

A Holistic View of Food Addiction

Most food-related Twelve Step groups view addiction as more than biochemical. Addiction is a “physical, emotional and spiritual” phenomenon, they believe. Thus these groups promote a more expansive approach towards food sobriety beyond just eliminating trigger foods. For example, most programs expect members to “commit their foods,” — in other words, the member must tell someone else in the program, prior to the day of eating, what they will eat and then stick to whatever they have promised. Some give additional requirements: Members may be asked to make three calls a day to other members, have daily contact with their sponsor and read 12-step literature daily. They are required to go to seven meetings a week. If there are no groups in the community they live in, there may be online groups. Failing that, the recommendation is to go to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and just switch the word “alcohol” to “food.”

To the uninitiated, these requirements can seem mammoth, but to those who are “working the program” successfully, it is this intensity that has given them the necessary support to remain food-abstinent over the long haul. It is my impression that the more intense the program, the more likely someone will achieve success. It seems success comes at a cost, though: People have summarized that OA achieves “fat serenity,” while other groups claim to have achieved “food serenity” along with weight loss and/or maintenance.

A less-demanding program makes the food addict vulnerable to relapse. “Going back out” — the food addict’s term to describe “falling off the wagon” — is a temptation for many, especially once they have lost their weight. This is almost always bad news for the food addict, as most people regain their weight and more. Food addiction is a chronic and progressive disease. The eating gets worse, the triggers multiply, the despair can become immobilizing. Not everyone comes back to get help. Many seem destined to gain even more, a progression that can lead to illness and eventually, death.

More Fellowships for Help with Food

Two more food-recovery fellowships exist, and these have even more requirements. Compulsive Eaters Anonymous-HOW (CEA-HOW) and Overeaters Anonymous-HOW (OA-HOW) demand that members complete dozens of writing exercises. In both cases, the HOW stands for “honesty, open-mindedness and willingness,” perceived as the keys to long-term recovery. Questions to be answered are assigned by sponsors and are based on AA’s foundational literature, Alcoholics Anonymous (also called “The Big Book”) and Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions.

CEA-HOW differs from OA-HOW because, like its cousins FAA, FA and RFA, its groups are “sugar- and flour-abstinent and committed to weighing and measuring” food, while OA-HOW does not require adherence to any particular food plan. OA-HOW calls itself a “movement” within OA, whose broad definition of abstinence reads: “…the action of refraining from compulsive eating and compulsive food behaviors while working towards or maintaining a healthy body weight.”

If none of these programs offers the right mix of flexibility and structure, there are still lesser -known options. These include Food Compulsions Anonymous, for people with a problem with “compulsive overeating, anorexia, bulimia, obsession with food or other food addictions”; Anorexics and Bulimics Anonymous, for those who have unhealthy “eating practices”; and Overcomers Outreach, a Christian-based program that blends the 12 steps with Biblical references.

Finally, there’s a relatively new “back to basics” OA offshoot, OA Big Book Step Study that is following in the footsteps of some AA groups by concentrating on teaching and practicing the 12 steps as originally completed by the early members of Alcoholics Anonymous.

It is truly difficult to ferret out the differences between all of these groups. Clinicians get baffled — which meal plan captures the best food-addiction menu? People looking for help get overwhelmed — What is the difference between all these programs? Which is the best for me? It is truly a buffet (so to speak) of choices among all the 12-step food-based programs.

What a person eventually decides often depends on what is available in their community. Some programs, like GreySheeters and FAA, have a strong online community, while others, like OA and FA, have many face-to-face meetings in major cities. Some groups have fewer rules: OA has the fewest demands, whereas others that are tougher appeal to those who are highly motivated. Wading through this dizzying area of choices requires patience and a willingness to experiment with a few of these groups. It is worth shopping around until the best fit – with the meal plan and the particular requirements of the group — is found.

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    2 Responses to Beyond Overeaters Anonymous: More 12-Step Programs to Help Food Addicts

    1. Avatar
      Freya April 5, 2016 at 6:16 am #

      Hi there,

      Even though these descriptions may well apply to the groups you visited, they don’t represent the traditions of any 12 step program I know.

      1. There aren’t any obligations much less mandatory meetings.
      2. This includes how often you should call your sponsor, if you choose to have one.

      But most importantly : every group is autonomous and may deviate from the 12 traditions. My advice is to find another group.

    2. Avatar
      Catherine C November 2, 2016 at 3:18 pm #

      With all respect your definition of FA is incorrect. FA does not allow either sugar or flour, it requires 3 weighed and measured meals with nothing in between and the avoidance of any individual binge foods. Your definition did not elaborate on the things mentioned by the above comment but to clarify FA does require 3 meetings per week there are obligations, and you do call your sponsor at committed times.

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