Twelve Steps to Beat the Odds of Food Addiction and Obesity

Talk about discouraging.

An online article about a study published in July by the American Journal of Health carried this disheartening headline: “Most Obese People Will Never Reach Normal Weight: Study.” The study was conducted by researchers at University College London and was led by psychologist Alison Fildes. It tracked the weight loss of 176,000 obese adults.

According to the researchers’ data, obese men had only a one in 210 chance of attaining a healthy body weight while obese women faced odds of one in 124. What was even more disheartening was that three-quarters of those adults who lost weight had gained it back within five years.

While some obesity experts questioned the study’s methodology — and suggested that the situation may not be quite as grim as this research indicates — they agreed that losing weight and keeping it off is no easy task. One reason for this, they said, is the ineffectiveness of today’s weight-loss programs. Most commercial programs offer diet and exercise regimens, a dash of motivational happy talk and maybe an optional support group.

To further darken the picture, also included in the summary section of the study results is this statement: “… the greatest opportunity for tackling the current obesity epidemic may be found outside primary care.” If commercial programs do not work and doctors cannot help, what is an obese person to do? What other options are there?

A Role for 12-step Fellowships

Those of us who consider obesity the side effect or result of food addiction have a different explanation for the dismal results reported in this study. We believe it is difficult to find help because neither of those two options — commercial programs or medical aid — addresses the underlying disease of food addiction. Thus our approach is to send people to the best resource we have for helping addicts: a 12-step fellowship.

Perhaps because healthy eating and weight loss involve so many variables, there are several food-related 12-step fellowships. All of these organizations are anonymous and thus cannot provide data on how many members lose weight and keep it off. They all are rooted in the same 12-step recovery program pioneered by Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). Like all 12-step programs, they are self-supporting through member donations. In this post and the next to follow I’ll take a closer look at some of the more popular food-related 12-step fellowships. There are quite a number of them and it can get confusing and perplexing: which one should I go to? Which food plan is the best? Here’s a brief overview of two of the biggest groups:

Overeaters Anonymous (OA)—OA is the mother of all food-related 12-step programs. An overweight woman who went to Gamblers Anonymous founded it in 1960. While there, she had an epiphany that their approach might also work for compulsive overeaters and encouraged a friend to help her open the first meeting. Today, the program boasts thousands of groups in dozens of countries. OA does not endorse any particular eating plan and eschews the word “diet.” Instead, its World Service Office publishes a pamphlet titled “The Dignity of Choice” that includes a broad definition of abstinence as well as several outlines for eating abstinently. These range from a plan based on simply eating moderately to one that eliminates all carbohydrates. OA prides itself on being a “big tent” where the only requirement for membership is “a desire to stop eating compulsively,” and anyone can speak at meetings.

GreySheeters Anonymous (GSA)—When OA was first founded, the only diet/food plan it had to offer was something called the grey sheet. (It got that name because early editions were printed on grey paper.) In its early days, the food plan was spartan at best and dangerous at worst since it eliminated all carbohydrates, required rigid weighing and measuring of food and did not allow any eating outside of three meals a day, “with nothing in between but black coffee, tea or diet soda.” Food addicts who binged on presumably “healthy” trigger foods — e.g., brown rice, potatoes, corn, winter squash — found that this was the only regimen they could follow. To avoid violating OA’s more permissive approach, these addicts made the food plan mandatory and split off in 1998 to found GSA using the same 12 steps as a framework. Sponsors and speakers at meetings must be abstinent for a minimum of 90 days. The meal plan has been modified somewhat over the years and now includes more fat, fruit and vegetables, making it healthy and more filling for its members.

In my next post I’ll discuss splinter groups that broke from Overeaters Anonymous.

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