The Struggle of Recovering From Food Addiction When Food Is Everywhere
Illustration by P.J. McQuade
On a warm spring evening, two members of Food Addicts in Recovery Anonymous are contemplating what it is like not to contemplate food all the time. Morgan and Hazel, whose names have been changed at their request, are waiting for the support group's monthly meeting to begin, an hour from now, at a church in Westwood. Until then, they are killing time at a nearby Corner Bakery amidst the maple pecan bars and sticky cinnamon buns, deep in the belly of the beast.
Is it hard to be at a place like this?
"Well ... there was a time," Morgan says. "It might have been painful."
Morgan is a stylish, 42-year-old real estate agent, and Hazel a soft-spoken, 50-year-old executive assistant. Lithe as a pair of saplings, they have not eaten flour or sugar for 17 and 11 years, respectively.
In those years of "sobriety," Morgan lost 75 pounds. Hazel lost 45.
Hazel now weighs in at a reedy 100 pounds. "I know that sounds light," she says.
"But she has very small bones," Morgan finishes.
That there is a disease called "food addiction" was once a revelation. "I was offended by the term," Morgan admits. "Like a drug addict? I'm not one of those people."
But even as a child, she was heavy, she says in a weary voice. She first dieted at age 6. At 7, she started playing sports, lost weight, got praised, felt better, gained it back and felt worse. With her father in the restaurant business, food was an inescapable part of her life. She dieted through her teens. By her 20s, the cycle of weight loss and gain was well-entrenched.
Then, when she was 24, she met someone who was in Food Addicts Anonymous. "The bummer, or what seemed like a bummer at the time, was that she was speaking my language. She talked about food in the way that I used food, I ate food, I hunted down food," she says. "I ate like an alcoholic drinks. It's very similar behavior."
You've heard of blackout drinkers? Morgan was a blackout eater. She'd gorge, then sleep. She ate often, in large quantities and quickly. She'd eat until she was so full that she had to unbutton her pants at the table. Embarrassed, she'd swear off food, swear that come Monday, she'd start anew. She'd have a perfect healthy breakfast. "But by 11 o'clock, I'd be right back into it." She sighs. "It was broken promise after broken promise."
Feeling bad, she'd eat to ease the pain. "I'd need to eat to take care of the thing that eating did to me."
She closes her eyes now. "It doesn't mean that I'm not a strong person. People always say to us, 'Have willpower.' But we take our will and surrender it to a higher power."
Eating was great. But being fat was not. Fat, she says, robbed her of her dreams. "Because, physically, I compared myself. I wanted to be an actress, a dancer, a singer. Well, I don't look like those girls."
Her world got smaller and smaller. Growing up in Santa Monica, she had "a million friends," but would go through phases in which she'd cancel on them at the last minute to stay home and eat instead. "I was isolating," she recalls.
Hazel also ate in secret. She'd starve, then binge, then exercise manically. She was, she says, "very bulimic in my thinking." When she first heard that food addiction was a disease of fear, doubt and insecurity, she thought, "Huh. Well, that's most of my emotions."
The differences between food addicts and non-addicts are significant, they explain. A non-addict can take food or leave it. "They might occasionally over-indulge," Hazel says. "Then they're back to normal. But for a food addict, it sets up a whole chain of events."
A food addict cannot just casually take a bite out of a brownie, put it down and forget, they say. No, a food addict starts to obsess. Addicts aren't simply people with sloppy eating habits who lose weight once properly educated. Armed with the best information, with nutritionists and trainers, food addicts still struggle. Food is just too exciting.
"You hear about people whose grandparents give you a dollar for every pound you lose?" Hazel asks. "For us it doesn't work because it's not motivating enough. Because the addiction is too powerful."
Food Addicts Anonymous is a 12-step program patterned after Alcoholics Anonymous.
The problem, of course, is that food is inescapable. An alcoholic can give up drinking. But a food addict can't give up eating, at least not completely. Groups like FA try to reclaim control by banning certain foods outright.
Experts like Dr. Adi Jaffe, UCLA professor and executive director of Alternatives Addiction Treatment, believe the approach has its limitations. One problem is that the measure of what is "healthy" can vary greatly from person to person. "What worked for one individual could actually be risky and dangerous for a second individual," Jaffe says.
Compounding that is the sponsor system itself. Most sponsors, Jaffe points out, are not trained nutritionists or psychologists. "Their advice relies on how they ended up finding their own path," he says. It can be hit-or-miss finding a sponsor who can give the appropriate guidance.
Mostly, Jaffe takes issue with the entire concept of avoidance around which FA is based. FA's treatment plan, he notes, "can lead to anorexia or it can, and often will, lead to replacement behavior like over-consumption of alcohol or other drugs."
He adds, "Never exposing oneself to sugar is a challenge, to say the least. You don't see people sticking to very hard-core diets for life."
When Hazel joined FA, she was assigned a sponsor who checked in on the phone every day for 15 minutes. "Whenever I needed to negotiate for food, I'd ask her."
At each meeting, the group recites its definition of abstinence: No flour. No sugar. Weighed and measured meals. No food in between. Water, tea or diet soda to drink.
Most everyone balks at the meal plan at first. "No flour, no sugar ever?" Hazel recalls asking. "What about my wedding cake? Well, I wasn't engaged. I didn't have a boyfriend. Being fat and depressed, I wasn't gonna get one!"
"I've been married twice, and I did not have cake at either wedding," Morgan offers proudly.
Asked what replaces the pleasure of eating, Morgan laughs. "It better be good. It better be really good. You're talking about giving up any number of?...?" her voice drifts off. "There is a peace that comes over us," she continues. "And a freedom. There is serenity."
Recovery happens slowly, they say. When people are new in the program, there is an intense focus on food. And then, it shifts. Hazel is happy to have finally achieved neutrality around food. "I came in and looked for you," not the desserts at the cafe, she says to Morgan. "I have a life full of relationships today. I'm not really noticing the pastries, wondering, 'What does that taste like?'?"
In addition to eschewing sugar and flour, the food addicts try to avoid individual binge foods. These are foods that are technically allowed in the program that are "a little too exciting." "Maybe a fruit that's too sweet," Morgan explains. "Certain foods might light us up a bit too much."
For her, it was eggs. "It was weird. I'd had a few years of abstinence at the time. I would make eggs over easy or poached. And literally I felt like I could taste the way that my parents used to make them. It was always an egg sandwich. And I would think about the bread!" she says, eyes aglow now. "I was like, you're kidding me! This is lame. All I could think about was this damned toast!"
She'd eat eggs in the morning and five hours later they'd be flashing through her mind. She called her sponsor. "Maybe you could let it go?" the sponsor suggested.
So she did. She surrendered the eggs to the universe. They have not reminded her of toast since.
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