Fighting food addiction

HOUGHTON – When it comes to food addiction, there are two sure things both counselors and recovering addicts can agree on. First, food isn’t really the cause of the addiction. Second, overeating and food addiction can be overcome, especially with some help.

So when a Gazette reporter was allowed to attend a small local meeting of Overeaters Anonymous, there was very little mention of calories, weight or favorite dishes. Instead, members talked about the social anxieties and insecurities that led them to seek a feel-good outlet, program tools that have helped them with their addiction, and the higher power to whom they hand over anxieties about situations they can’t – or shouldn’t – try to control.

“Food is the symptom, a symptom of other things in life,” explained OA member Jennifer after the meeting.

“We eat because we’re depressed or unhappy,” added Barbara. “Food is our drug of choice. It’s a drug that satiates anxiety and despair.”

Both OA members’ names have been changed for this article to protect their privacy, and no quotes from the actual meeting were used.

Tim Payment, owner and counselor at North Coast Counseling Services, said food addiction functions much like any other addiction, except that food initially appears more socially acceptable to individuals seeking an outlet.

“The problem is it’s instant gratification, and the pleasure is short-lived,” he said. “In the long run, it’s just as damaging to the body as other types of behaviors.”

Long term health issues, Payment said, include heart disease, diabetes, hypoglycemia, and joint and knee problems, many of which can be reversed if steps are taken in time. There are also often social consequences, with addicts avoiding social expectations or responsibilities, or being forced to shop for larger clothes.

Payment said signs of a problem include when someone is “sneaking eating, or has a stash of favorite food.”

“When they start to feel remorseful after eating or gorging, then we know the relationship with food has gone sour,” he said.

But once an individual recognizes his or her addiction and decides to make a change, they’ve taken the first step toward turning things around. Success doesn’t necessarily come overnight, but it does come, especially with support from people who care and have been in the same situation.

“The self-esteem of overeaters is so low,” said Barbara. “Having someone to talk to, to know they made it, they know that they can be successful also.”

The challenge, she said, is not just changing what you eat for a while, but changing an entire way of living.

“Healing comes gradually,” Barbara said, noting that at OA, “We don’t prescribe perfection. We’re about progress.”

Payment agreed that individuals can overcome food addiction if they’re personally committed to change, though attempts forced by the intervention of friends or family are less successful.

Once committed, “generally people do better with OA, Food Addicts Anonymous, another 12-step program or other support,” he said.

Counselors, Payment said, can help addicts identify traumas, self-confidence issues, and other reasons behind why someone developed a food addiction.

“We would do a holistic evaluation to help understand who the person is, and why they developed the eating disorder,” he said.

Twelve-step programs, he said, offer multiple meetings each week if needed, and the support of the sponsor “who’s been there themselves and come out the other side.”

“A clinical counselor may not see a food craving as an emergency,” Payment said, “but someone in a 12-step program may understand it as a food emergency.”

Some people, he said, may require more than one avenue of support to succeed, though success will eventually build upon success to make recovery easier.

At that point, “the experience of empowerment is exhilarating,” he said. “When people conquer one area, they’re more able to take on other areas.”

Payment offered six steps to beating food addiction that should be followed regardless of therapeutic or self-help programs:

Be honest with yourself. If food is a negative issue, admit it.

Seek assistance.

Have a shopping list established, and refuse to deviate from it.

Eat only at home.

Stay away from buffets.

Seek assistance from a nutritionist to select a healthy diet.

Perhaps the most crucial step, however, is an individual’s realization that they can beat their food addiction.

“The key is that recovery does work, and treatment is possible,” Payment said.

Overeaters Anonymous meets online, over the phone, or in person. To find a meeting, go to oa.org/membersgroups/find-a-meeting. You can also check out Food Addicts Anonymous, at foodaddictsanonymous.org. To find counseling, call 211 for the Michigan help line or call North Coast at 523-5580.