What Is The 12-Step Approach To Eating Disorders?

In the same way that the Twelve Step program of Alcoholics Anonymous has helped countless alcoholics find sobriety, Overeater’s Anonymous has come to the aid of those who struggle with compulsive eating and exercising. Using the Twelve Steps, bulimics, anorexics, and compulsive overeaters have found freedom from their obsessive/compulsive relationship with food.

Overeaters Anonymous works for food addicts because the Twelve Steps address fundamental elements of addiction. The addictive substance or behavior is secondary to the internal physical and spiritual struggles that foster a propensity towards addiction. In each case, the addict is unable to cope with a life that has become unmanageable. They are seeking an escape or a means of controlling the uncontrollable. For some this escape will come in the form of endless cocktails or a case of beer, for others the magic potion is potato chips and pie. Regardless of the drug of choice, the inner urge is the same.

Since all addictions bear a significant similarity at their base level, they may be battled with a similar strategy. This is good news for the addict. However, despite their fundamental likenesses, alcoholism and compulsive eating are unique at a practical level. For the alcoholic, sobriety means putting the cork in the bottle. One sip is enough to send a drunk reeling, thus there is no other solution besides total abstinence from alcohol.

In Lieu of Abstinence

It goes without saying that total abstinence from food would be impossible. Thus compulsive overeaters in recovery seek to identify and abstain from compulsive eating patterns. With the help of a sponsor and other members, individuals identify trigger foods and eating patterns. While food is not mind-altering in the sense that alcohol and narcotics are, any food addict could admit that refined sugars and flours have an unmistakable effect on their bodies and minds. Once they begin to ingest these substances, many find they cannot stop. Food addicts will also typically seek the help of a nutritionist to develop a food plan that will address their personal dietary needs.

Whether a compulsive eater is an overeater, undereater, purger, or overexerciser (and many fall into more than one category), at their roots they are the same-they cannot eat in moderation. They lack the internal signals that indicate the proper amount to eat, when to stop and start, and which foods are best for the health of the body. Rather than a life-sustaining gift, food becomes the enemy-a tool for personal destruction.

While Overeater’s Anonymous will help the food addict address the practical food issues in his or her life, twelve step programs aim to go deeper. Recognizing that food addiction is a physical, mental, and spiritual disease, the program addresses the issue on each of these three levels-the same as Alcoholics Anonymous. Before the addict can begin to work the steps, the offending substance must be put in its proper place. For the alcoholic this means "putting the cork in the bottle." For the anorexic, bulimic, or compulsive overeater, it means beginning to abstain from behavioral patterns around food that ignite the disease. Binging, purging, and food restriction come to an end. Though the addict cannot imagine this would even be possible, most are shocked to find that as soon as they become truly willing to stop, the power to do so is supplied. "Putting down the food" is often referred to as "Step Zero" because it precedes even the taking of the first step. With food in its proper place, the addict can commence the recovery journey.

With the help of a sponsor and fellow members in recovery, the addict will progress through the steps. He will learn to have relationships that don’t involve addiction by practicing with other members. He will adapt to living in the world without compulsive eating. He will admit he has a problem that he cannot control and he will become willing to believe that God can help. He will look at his life and the damage his addiction has caused-both to himself and others. He will seek to make amends.

His life will change. Where the world once seemed hostile and frightening, he will see that relying upon God, he can face the world with faith, dignity and even hope. He will learn to examine his life, he will learn honesty, he will pray. To continue in recovery the addict learns that the only way to keep what he has is to give it away to others. The addict will embrace service not as drudgery, but as an opportunity to once again be useful in the world. Life takes on greater meaning-food is no longer his universe.

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