How Does A Food Addict Stop Eating?

By far, the most-asked question I hear in my recovery circles is, “What is abstinence for a food addict?” Abstinence for alcoholics, drug addicts, gamblers, sex addicts is simple to define; you don’t use or engage in the substance or behavior that keeps you in the vicious cycle of addiction. But what about food? Its everywhere, its legal, and its easily available. To find the freedom and recovery we need, we food addicts have to find a way to pick up our ‘drug’ and use it every single day without letting it get out of control.

In Overeaters Anonymous, abstinence is defined as “the action of refraining from compulsive eating and compulsive food behaviors while working towards or maintaining a healthy body weight.” First let me tell you how I define those terms:

Compulsive Eating – This is overeating or bingeing on food when I feel stress or certain emotions; escaping life by over-nourishing myself. When I’m eating compulsively I’m not eating because its time to eat, and I’m not eating because I’m hungry. For me its dangerously easy to binge on certain foods just because I took that first bite. This is especially true with sugar and processed food, which causes the pleasure center in my brain to fire up and suddenly my body physically craves more.

Compulsive Food Behaviors – This is when I grab food outside my meal plan because I didn’t eat when I should have at my planned time. This puts me at huge risk for a binge by engaging in behaviors that might trigger me; late night TV, working close to my kitchen (I intentionally moved my work environment to the second floor of my home), taking “just one bite” of something I know I can’t handle, or eating while reading, watching TV or on the computer. It also includes telling myself I can overeat “just this one time” and I’ll start again on the program tomorrow.

So what does abstinence look like for me? It comes in 3 parts:

  1. Plan of Eating – My eating plan is 3 balanced, healthy meals a day at the same time every day. Well, as close to it as I can get. I allow myself some flexibility. I also give myself the option for one snack if I work out early in the morning. But between meals I eat nothing.
  2. Binge Food List –Early on in my program, I made a list of foods that I can’t have just one of – my trigger foods. These are foods that I crave when I am not hungry. And I don’t eat them. Ever. Unless I want to relapse!
  3. Environmental/Behavioral Change – As much as I can, I stay away from environments and behaviors that might trigger a binge, like I mentioned above.

Some people view this kind of abstinence as restrictive and a loss of freedom. That’s the most common objection I hear from people who are unhappy and struggling with food and considering recovery. They tell me, “I could never do that!”  But you CAN do it! In fact you will be absolutely stunned at the total freedom you will experience once you once start eating only when your food plan tells you to eat, and not when your feelings want you to eat.

I am so much happier when I am abstinent. I know it is not easy, especially first starting out. But it becomes a new way of life and I don’t thing about it much anymore. There is a saying in OA: “Abstinence is a lifeboat, stay in the lifeboat.” As long as I stay in the lifeboat I am safe. The guilt, shame and pain associated with bingeing is gone and I get to actually LIVE. No isolating, no anger. No trying to undo my binge by starving, purging, over-exercising, or spending. See how that works?

I talked to a woman last night who was scared to death to give up her food. She has 100 lbs to lose. This is where the all-important spiritual part of this program comes in. I told her that God will be her courage and her strength for today. She doesn’t need to look up at the mountain, she just needs to look at the next little step in front of her, just do what she needs to do for today, just like all of us who are trying to walk through our fear.

If we keep our focus on staying in the lifeboat just for today, tomorrow will take care of itself. And before you know it, faster than you think, you will find yourself enjoying a newfound freedom and well on your way to recovery and healing.

So what are you waiting for? Get in the boat!

For help with Binge Eating Disorder, Anorexia, Bulima or emotional eating visit

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