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Why Food Addiction Is Deadlier Than Drinking

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Too much food and too much booze are both dangerous—but which is worse?

By John Kiernan

06/23/11

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This extra “competition” contributes to another difference between food programs like OA and chemical addiction programs like AA and NA. People don’t tend to show up to “audit” AA or NA meetings. By the time you’ve decided to dabble in AA, you’ve probably needed it for a long time. But people do dabble in programs like OA. For some of them, it’s another step between commercial weight loss groups and gastric surgery. This means that the eating groups have a far higher rate of “turnover” than other 12-step programs.

Another factor with food addiction is how it is often inextricably linked to one’s sexuality. A number of food addicts were either molested or received other types of inappropriate sexual advances as children. As a result, while one part of the food addict desperately wants to lose weight and be “normal,” another part is terrified of becoming thin and attractive. This is one cause of recidivism in many young women—the attention becomes overwhelming and they turn back to the food.

The weight doesn’t go instantly from 250 to 600. It moves from 250 to 275, then 275 to 300, and onward—slow enough to allow the mind games to adjust. We food addicts continually learn to accept that which was previously unacceptable.

The main issue, however, that makes food addiction harder has to do with how it delivers its pain. At some point in most alcohol and drug addicts’ lives, some critical incident—or series of incidents—happens to cause them to hit a bottom. While this is usually acutely painful, it is the stimulus to get the addict to open his eyes and ask, “What the hell am I doing?” That’s the first step to recovery.

Food’s pain is not acute—it is a dull, chronic pain. It allows food addicts (especially the smart ones) to continually keep moving the goalposts. One of my deceased sponsees had a genius-level mind. Had I been able to go back in time to his college years and tell him that someday he’d be 600 pounds, he would have laughed me out of the room. But the weight doesn’t go instantly from 250 to 600. It moves from 250 to 275, then 275 to 300, and onward—slow enough to allow the mind games to adjust. We food addicts continually learn to accept that which was previously unacceptable. Compulsive eating is a slow, chronic pain that makes the sufferer realize that they should do something about their problem, but it doesn't cause them enough pain to make them *willing* to actually do so.

Another interesting wrinkle is that the addiction to compulsive overeating can take different forms and each of these forms may need a different approach. Some food focused 12-step programs (such as FAA or CEA-HOW) are very structured, attempting to equate the addictive nature of food with the addictive nature of alcohol. They have a structured and clearly defined approach to abstinence (the food equivalent of sobriety). Other groups (such as OA), which focus more on the process of compulsive overeating, encourage the individual to define their own abstinence.

The downside of a more flexible program such as OA is that it’s up to the addict and their sponsor to determine which foods and behaviors cause them problems and which ones do not. While this is good in theory, if the addict does not have a good sponsor or is not honest about their addiction, it is like giving the inmates the keys to the asylum. As a good friend says, “You can’t fix a broken brain with a broken brain.”

One of the other problems that sometimes occurs in more flexible programs like OA—even among people working a strong program—is the slow, insidious creeping back toward overeating. It’s not like people in AA don’t have slips—they do. But at least they know they are doing it. It’s easy, however, for someone in OA to have a slip and not know it until they are knee deep in it.

Finally, for many addicts, food is “the last house on the block.” Often people with addictions find alternatives when they get recovery from their primary addiction. Food often becomes the “go to” substance for such a switch (the AA Big Book even suggests that newly sober alcoholics who are struggling should turn to chocolate). I think that for some, the idea of having to admit that food is yet another addiction becomes quite threatening. If they start examining their own behavior around food, they might be forced to then have to put down that “last drug.”

The one thing I have to keep telling these “crossovers” is that the credits don’t transfer. It’s very difficult for people who might be circuit speakers in one program to hear that they need to sit down and become a newcomer again.

In the end, trying to compare which addiction is worse is absurd. There are too many variables that make all such comparisons an apples versus oranges debate. I just hope that food addiction won’t continue to be a punch line.

John Kiernan was born and raised in the New York City area and now lives in Los Angeles where he’s working on a book entitled Recovering From the Food Relapse Cycle. He will be celebrating 30 years of sobriety this October.

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