This is Part I of a two-part series. See Part II next week on Scientific Research on Food Addiction and
Sally, (not her real name), went on her first diet when she was 13 years old. She tried the fad diet popular at that time, the grapefruit and water diet, and lost 15 pounds rather easily. Looking back, she never really was that overweight as a child, but losing weight made her feel pretty and powerful. She felt a sort of “high”, and boys starting paying attention to her. Little did she know this was the start of a lifelong cycle of dieting and binging, losing and gaining weight over and over again. She was also unaware that she was an emotional eater, and becoming addicted to the “diet high” as well as certain foods to get her “sugar high”.
Over the years she tried every available weight loss program or new diet she could find, from mainstream to fringe. These included such dangerous methods as fasting, Fen-Phen (a drug which was taken off the market for damaging heart valves), and over the counter diet pills like Dexatrim. She became an expert in nutrition, but couldn’t apply the healthy eating habits to herself. She exercised to the point of exhaustion, trying to burn the calories off from her last binge or period of weight gain. Each period of weight loss or control, was inevitably followed by a period of loss of control, where she would compulsively overeat and gain most, if not all of the weight back. Sometimes she would gain back more than she had lost, and always she lived with the fear that something was wrong with her, and she would always be fat. Sally was never at one weight for more than five minutes, always going up or down the scale. Her life was characterized by either being on a diet or off a diet. The desperation drove her to continue the battle for years, even though her return to the food was always inevitable. Like many overweight people, she felt shame for not being able to control her eating or her weight.
Sally knew she was different from normal eaters and hid many of her eating behaviors. She could not eat “just one” cookie or bowl of ice cream, she always craved more. When others suggested she eat “just one” or in moderation, she felt shameful and weak. When alone, she would binge eat until she felt sleepy and drugged. She never felt full, even after eating large amounts of food. Often, she would wake up with a food hangover and miss work. She didn’t like social events around food, and would always eat normally around others only to binge later by herself. Making sure she appeared normal to others, she lived a double life, hiding her binging from everyone. However, the weight gain was impossible to hide, even though she had several sizes of clothes in her closet, trying to conceal the obvious.
She started seeing counseors and tried hypnotherapy, acupuncture, and spiritual healing techniques. As all desperate people do, she was always looking for a quick miracle cure. Once, she decided to give up trying to lose weight and eat whatever she wanted whenever she wanted. She gained 100 lbs. in less than six months. Clearly, there was a 300 lb. woman inside of her wanting to get out.
Finally, one counselor suggested she try a local support group called Overeaters Anonymous. Reluctant but desperate, she attended a meeting. It was a small meeting, but the honest sharing with other compulsive overeaters and food addicts allowed Sally to be completely honest about her behaviors. She felt understood and accepted, as others there had similar behaviors and were starting to get better, lose weight and keep it off, one day at a time. Better yet, they were learning how to face life on life’s terms without escaping into food.
She learned Overeaters Anonymous was patterned after Alcoholics Anonymous, and just as an alcoholic cannot have “just one” beer, she could not have “just one” cookie or other sugary or refined carbohydrate food item. She learned she had a physical addiction to certain foods and an emotional addiction to numbing her feelings with food.
She realized O.A. was not a diet and calories club, focusing just on losing the weight. O.A. offered the experience, strength and hope of other recovering compulsive overeaters and food addicts. With the help of O.A. she started learning how to avoid her trigger foods, face her feelings and live her life without using food to cope. She realized she had made food her God, and began exploring a relationship with the spiritual side of herself and a loving Higher Power.
None of this happened overnight, as 35 years of addictive and compulsive behavior takes time, commitment and support to change. However, Sally has been abstinent (like sobriety in A.A.) for over 14 years and is maintaining a 105 lb. weight loss. She knows there is no cure for her addiction, and continues to work on her recovery with the help of Overeaters Anonymous, one day at a time.
Overeaters Anonymous has four meetings a week in Juneau. Call 463-1224 for meeting locations and information.