Saturday, September 19, 2015

Food Addicts in Recovery Anonymous

Since becoming a stay at home mom, I have had more trouble than ever maintaining any kind of healthy weight. As a teacher, there are only certain opportunities throughout the day to eat. In general, the only food available for a teacher is the food you bring to work. At home, food is accessible 24/7. When out running errands, there's unlimited access to drive-thrus and random food stashed in the van. The idea that I've lost control over eating, particularly binge eating, is something I've started to come to terms with recently.

I'm no stranger to diets. In the past decade I have tried:
  • Weight Watchers: I had success with the program multiple times, but I would manipulate the points. I would eat a can of green beans, bag of fat free popcorn, and a brownie for dinner. The last meeting I ever went to was Monday, November 5, 2007--at the same exact time my mother died. I've never returned to WW. Instead, I began eating whole pies.
  • Nutrisystem: This was a Today's Special Value on QVC one day. The food was so high in sodium and wasn't satisfying.
  • L. A. Weight Loss: I lost hundreds of dollars, but no weight, because they required 90 day plans be paid upfront. I went to a scheduled weigh in one day, only to find a note on the door saying they went bankrupt! They never refunded my money!
  • SparkPeople: I manually typed in every calorie/fat/carb/protein I ever put in my mouth for many months. Of course I was successful, but I also became obsessed with counting calories.
  • Juice Fast: NOT successful!
  • Wheat Belly: After giving up grains and sugars for four months last year, I felt great, but eventually returned to unhealthy dessert binges.
  • Whole 30: This was the most restrictive and least successful diet change I've ever attempted. I couldn't even make it the whole 30 days.
Like most people, with each diet, I loose weight, only to gain back even more weight. My weight has fluctuated 92 lbs over the last decade. 92 damn pounds. Last month I was at my heaviest weight I've ever been (even more than the day I delivered the trio!) and I felt so defeated. I was running 5 miles and just felt plain grossly gigantic. I was obsessively researching diets, supplements, food plans, etc. I read science based articles as well as articles from less reputable sources. Eventually, I googled my way to FA (Food Addicts in Recovery Anonymous). It was on a Thursday afternoon when I browsed through the website. There was a meeting listed that evening at a church just a few minutes away from my house. After dinner, off I went.

Despite being a newcomer amidst a very small group of strangers, the FA meeting felt like home. Everything I heard resonated with me. We read testimonies from food addicts around the world who shared their struggles. People who had been abstinent (from flour and sugar) for 90 days or more were invited to share their own reactions to the readings. Everything sounded familiar and right. The individuals would eat well and go on some diet for a few days/weeks/months, only to find themselves ending an entire bag of chips or whole pan of cookies in one setting. During the 10-minute break, I spoke with a few women who briefed me in the program and shared how it had changed them. Over the course of the next two weeks, I immersed myself in FA and started implementing their many requirements. To be fully committed, you're expected to:

  • Attend 3 meetings a week, one of which should be an AWOL meeting
  • Get a sponsor, aka, someone who has been abstinent from flour and sugar for at least 6 months
  • Call your sponsor every single day (weekends, vacations, etc) at the specified time for 15 minutes
  • Call three other FA members throughout the day, every single day (They distribute phone lists with the first name and number of dozens of FA members so you should call different people.)
  • Strictly adhere to the food plan your sponsor gives you, which is three meals a day and nothing in between.
  • Precisely weigh and measure all food.
  • Record your daily food plan in a journal and recite it to your sponsor every morning
  • Read a page from the 24 Hours a Day book every morning and the AA Big Blue Book every evening.
  • Meditate with your "Higher Power" for 30 minutes a day

I attended meetings and found a sponsor. She gave me the following food plan:

Breakfast (eaten between 6-8 AM)
Grain: 1 dry oz of plain oatmeal or oatbran
Dairy: choose from 8 oz plain, nonfat yogurt, 2 eggs, 2 oz cheese, 4 oz cottage cheese
Fruit: 1 whole fruit or 6 oz of berries/melon

Lunch (eaten between 12-1:30 pm)
Protein: 4 oz cooked chicken, beef, pork, or fish
Cooked vegetable: 6 oz
Fruit: 1 whole fruit or 6 oz berries/melon

Dinner (eaten between 5-7)
Protein: 4 oz cooked chicken, beef, pork, or fish
Cooked vegetable: 6 oz
Raw vegetable: 8 oz salad
Fat: 2 tablespoons of olive oil, butter, sugar free dressing

Drinks: water, decaffeinated herbal teas, decaf black coffee (never alcohol or artificial sweeteners)

I bought a food scale. I began weighing and portioning my foods. I called my sponsor at 5:45 a.m. every morning. (I am NOT a morning person and have no other reason in the world to be awake at 5:45 a.m.) I adhered to the plan. Then I quit. I nearly lost my mind at the irrational rules my sponsor insisted I follow. Every morning when I told her my food plan, she'd have to stop and correct me because "we don't do that". Some examples of the insane guidelines include:
  • Even though you can have fruit and you can have yogurt, you can't make a smoothie. In FA, "we don't doctor things up". 
  • Six ounces of a fruit or vegetable should be a single produce. My six ounces of stir-fry veggies was frowned upon. I was not allowed to have 3 oz of strawberries with my oatmeal and 3 oz of pineapple with my yogurt. I was supposed to have 6 oz of broccoli or 6 oz of strawberries.
  • You cannot add the meat to your salad. I planned to eat taco salad one evening, but was told I had to keep my meat in a separate bowl. The point is to remove emotional associations from meals. If taco salad is your favorite, too bad. You're eating a protein, cooked veggie, and salad every night for the rest of your life.
  • You cannot mix and match things. You either eat 2 eggs or 2 oz of cheese, not 1 egg and 1 oz of cheese.
  • All food must be separate. No chili, stew, or any other marrying of approved ingredients is allowed.
  • Some fruits were allowed, but others weren't. I still don't know why. I could eat strawberries or blueberries, but not grapes or cherries. I could eat an apple but not a banana, an orange but not a pomegranate. 
  • You can't add lemon to your water because that's a fruit.
  • At meetings, you can never name specific foods. It's one of the first things that tell you at every meeting.
  • This program is NOT about eating when you're hungry. In fact, at every single meeting I attended, at least one person mentioned how they used to have such a hard time finishing their meals in the beginning. An 8 oz salad is a LOT of salad. I was never able to finish any of my meals (granted, half of the time I was also recovering from food poisoning). When I told my sponsor I couldn't eat that much, she said "The worst thing that will happen to you is you will throw up." On the flip side, I told my sponsor about training for the half marathon and going for long runs every Saturday. She said there were no exceptions to "3 meals a day and nothing in between". She texted, "I won't guarantee you won't be hungry, but you won't die or starve. Drink plenty of water. Go early so you can eat by 8. (I am absolutely not running by myself for 2 hours in the dark on an empty stomach.)
  • AWOL is an intense 18 month program that meets weekly and works through the 12 steps program. When you join AWOL, you aren't allowed to be on antidepressants. I'm not on any medications at all, but I could not wrap my head around that one.
  • The food plan you commit to each morning should be followed 100%. If for some reason I changed my food plan during the day (i.e. I decided to have chicken instead of pork or an apple instead of an orange) I was expected to call my sponsor immediately and notify her of the change. 
  • A lot of the literature is from AA, which means I would randomly read sentences like "We alcoholics are emotional people and we have gone to excess in almost everything we have done." I'm sure I'd get used to the language eventually, but it always caught me off guard.
  • Since I have a lot of weight to lose, I was on a stricter food plan. That meant no corn, peas, legumes, or potatoes. I was okay with being abstinent from flour and sugar, but my list of foods to avoid became longer each day.
The things I loved about FA were:

  • the fellowship and sense of community at the meetings
  • the incorporation of a Higher Power (They don't specify God, but most people are Christian.)
  • The entire program is free. There are no dues, though most people donate a dollar or two at each meeting.
  • There are multiple meetings available 7 days a week where I live, within a 40 minute radius.
  • Most of the people at the meetings had been abstinent from flour and sugar for several years. They looked very healthy.
  • The 12 steps requires you to examine your character defects and try to understand what your addiction is masking.
  • The goal of the food plan is to make eating manageable, take the power away from food, and feel "neutral" about food. You should like and enjoy what you eat, but you should neither look forward to a meal nor dread it. You shouldn't have positive or negative associations with a particular food. The sole purpose of food is to provide nutrients for your body, nothing more. Food is not a reward.
I'm currently in a bit of limbo. I want to incorporate some aspects of FA, but it's an all or nothing program. I won't follow the rules of not mixing fruit and yogurt or having a variety of vegetables. And I don't think rice or potatoes are foods to eliminate completely. I also won't commit to calling someone at 5:45 a.m. on a Sunday morning or running in the dark on an empty stomach. I'm uncomfortable with the idea of eating because someone told me to eat, not because I'm hungry. Still, I absolutely love so many components of the program. I'm not strictly adhering to my food plan at every meal, but I've been eating significantly more produce and refraining from flour or sugar (with the exception of teriyaki sauce). I truly do think flour and sugar have negative effects on my body. 

So, that's where I stand. I may continue going to the Thursday meetings, simply because I find them so relatable and inspiring. I will use my food plan as a guide, but allow room for error. I actually enjoy weighing the foods, as this is one thing I've never done before. Surprisingly, it gives me the exact same peace of mind as offering pumped milk rather than breastfeeding. Just like feeding the babies, I know exactly how much food I'm eating and I know it should be enough to hold me over until the next meal. It makes sense to me. Weighing my food and eating it in one sitting forces me to stop mindless grazing all day and opening the pantry or refrigerator door 20 times.

On the FA website, there's a list of 20 questions to answer to determine if you're a food addict. If you answer yes to any of them, you could be a food addict. I answered yes to 16 of them. Unfortunately, I know I have tendencies to binge eat on sweets. I think I'll always have cravings for sweet foods and associate desserts with comfort, but I'm going to try and consciously refrain. I may even try to work through some of the 12 steps and see what comes to surface.

If you've made it through this whole long post of rambling, thank you. There's no tidy conclusion, because my journey's not over.


  1. I think I would have to go to a meeting to understand all the rules....hang in there, it'll all come together :)

  2. Bonnie, you don't know me and I'm not quite sure how I landed here at your blog entry. I was Googling a specific question about FA's food guidelines. Anyway, for what it is worth -- I totally relate to your experience with FA -- both the positive aspects, and the drawbacks. In 2014 I stepped in and then out of FA meetings for almost the exact same reasons you describe. But I was very fortunate to discover the work of Dr. Susan Peirce Thompson around that time. She has a PhD in brain science and a long personal history in 12-step recovery communities. She has written a book that draws from her history and experience, and combines that with the brain science that explains food addiction (and recovery) from neurological, biological, psychological perspectives. The book (and program of recovery) is called "Bright Line Eating: the science of living happy, thin and free". I'm not trying to sell you anything, and I don't know where your life has taken you over the past couple of years (I see that this blog post is over 2 years old) -- and perhaps you have found other support / solutions for the weight/food issues you describe at the beginning. But if you are still struggling, I would encourage you to at least check the book out online. When Susan's plan recommends a certain strategy, she tells you why. (I didn't do well in FA with all the 'rules' and restrictions that seemed random or were offered without reasonable explanation, e.g. not combining veggies for a stir fry). All I can say is that, for me, Bright Line Eating is the real deal. I lost all my excess weight (130+ lbs), and I've maintained that weight loss for over a year now.

    If I knew how, I would have preferred to send you this message privately, but I don't see a way to do that. Anyway, I just felt compelled to reach out this morning. Forgive me if this seems intrusive, or too totally random from a complete stranger. I wish you well on your journey --