In the long term, diets do not work for compulsive eaters and food addicts, but we still need a way to give structure and support to our physical recovery. Since we have become powerless over food, a food plan must be used in a spiritual context. Thus, a food plan is a spiritual tool; it is an instrument for implementing “surrendered” food abstinence.
Everyone’s nutritional requirements are subtly different, but there are general principles and patterns which work for most people. When the food addict is looking for an effective food plan, the situation is similar. Every food addict must look to his or her own food history and be rigorously honest about what has worked and what has not worked. Each of us must check out for ourselves whether a particular food plan works for us in practice. Yet there are principles and patterns which have developed in our collective experience and these provide a helpful guide to compulsive eaters wanting to choose the best food plan for their recovery program.
Issues of Nutrition and General Health vs. Issues of Compulsion and Addiction
It is helpful first to see that we can separate the important issues about nutrition and general health from the issue of compulsive eating and food addiction. While these two types of issues can often over lap, it is practical to consider them separately. Nutrition is an evolving science, and there is still much controversy about basic questions like – What is a healthy weight? What food groups are essential and in what balance? What are the most effective strategies for weight loss (or gain) and long term maintenance? How is diet best supplemented by exercise?
The compulsive overeater needs to answer these questions just as much as the normal eater does. We recommend consulting a doctor, dietitian or other trained health professional regarding these matters. However, as compulsive eaters and food addicts we have an additional question: What do we do when we have a healthy diet to follow and cannot do it? Or when we cannot maintain a healthy eating process and weight over time?
If we are powerless to eat in a basically healthy way – much less in a manner conducive to optimal health, we obviously need help beyond ourselves, and it is in this area that a fellowship – and most importantly the Twelve Step Program – provide real practical experience, strength and hope. As is often mentioned, though, the problem of “putting down” food is different, and more complicated, than putting down alcohol or another addictive drug. The decision regarding exactly how we should abstain and/or from what specific foods we should abstain must be considered in the context of what food we do need and want to eat. This is where a food plan becomes most helpful.
If you are chemically dependent on specific foods or food in general, you are likely to have to go through a period of detoxification. There is no choice here either. Some compulsive eaters will experience immediate relief when they find an abstinent food plan that works for them. This sometimes last several months or even years, though at one point almost all compulsive eaters need to learn to be abstinent when the going is really rough. For many food addicts, however, it gets worse before it gets better. The symptoms of physical detoxification can be very subtle but they can also be quite severe.
Withdrawal symptoms may vary from subtle anxieties to strong physical cravings. Other symptoms of detoxification can include headaches, irritability, fatigue or insomnia. Withdrawal varies for different foods and from one food addict to another Most of all it is possible to have the thought that you have to eat or that certain feelings will be unbearable without food. It is always good to remember that no one has yet starved to death between meals and that feelings any particular feeling is not dangerous in itself… If we don’t eat, any feeling will eventually pass.
This is simple to say but often quiet difficult to do. Food addicts often need increased structure and support for their recovery in the first week to as long as a month because of going through detoxification. Some need extra structured support for much longer.
Similarly, most of us were eating over our feelings, using food essentially to medicate or numb our feelings. We needed to find and use other ways of dealing with even the most difficult feelings if we wanted to stay abstinent and recover. The most common way for food addicts to begin dealing with new and difficult feelings is to surrender to more structure and support: talk more with other food addicts, go to meetings, and use the tools. For long term recovery, this means a thorough working of the Twelve Steps.
It is in this context that we can look at the basic principles of choosing a food plan. Some compulsive eaters need to follow only one or two of these principles in order to discover a food plan that works. Others have to use almost all of these principles. Here again, it is important to base our choice on our best understanding and acceptance of what may be necessary to recovery from this disease. Many of us find it useful, even necessary, to make our choice of food plan with the help of other compulsive eaters or food addicts who are abstinent and who have a food plan that works for them.
Why Use the Term “Food Plan”?
Since most of us have been unable to eat or diet like normal eaters, we choose not to use the word “diet”. To us, diets mean something we can follow by reason and will power alone. We have come to accept that we cannot manage our food by self-control alone. Willpower failed us utterly, so we surrender to our powerlessness over food. The purpose of the food plan is to make this surrender more specific.
Few compulsive eaters chose a food plan because this is always the way they want to eat the rest of their life. Rather, we chose to surrender to a specific food plan because we have surrendered to the fact that we are powerless over food. There is real choice in deciding to use a food plan and what specific plan to use, but the first and most important decision is choosing to use a food plan – and practice surrendering to it – that works for the specific ways we are addicted to food.
There are some choices which are not available to each of us.
Most abstinent food addicts have an abundance of choice regarding what they eat. There are over two hundred different foods in most grocery stores, and only a handful are foods most of us find addictive. However, there is no choice about which food plans or principle will work and which will not. If you are addicted to a specific food, for example, it is not likely you will be able to include this food in your plan and have an abstinence that works.
Most compulsive eaters would like to be able to eat everything they want, exactly the way that they want, and suffer no consequences. Most of us would like to eat like normal eaters, but this choice is simply not available to us if we also want recovery. There is no such thing as surrendered food abstinence without giving up foods and ways of eating that your disease has long been wanting dearly.
© Phil Werdell, M.A.