Coping with Food Addiction Through the Holiday Season

By Emily Wade Will 12/05/13

Four food addicts—with 103 years of combined abstinence—share their strategies for staying healthy through holiday feasts

Photo: Shutterstock

It’s a tough time of year for food addicts. Visions of dancing sugar-plums pose no threat, but buffets groaning under the heft of mouth-watering holiday cuisine and ubiquitous cookie platters do. Rubbing elbows with relatives or others who have caused pain may also tempt food addicts to embrace the “consolation” of compulsive eating.

What’s a person to do?

Isabela, Jordan, Susan, and Nick (not their real names), food addicts from different parts of the country, total 103 years’ combined abstinence from compulsive eating. Together they’ve shed and kept off 387 pounds while maintaining healthy body weights on diets free of sugary, fatty processed foods.

More importantly, they’ve devised strategies for enjoying the holidays without igniting a binge-bomb.

Vital to each of the quartet is keeping an operating lifeline to their 12-step program during the season, whether Overeaters Anonymous, Food Addicts Anonymous or some other. They attend frequent meetings, participate in online conferences, consult with sponsors.

With this support, they approach the holidays with a plan. “If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail,” says Isabela, quoting Winston Churchill’s dictum. A compulsive eater, Isabela has maintained her weight at 115 pounds throughout adulthood. The 5’2” woman hit a high of 182 in her late teens.

Before each social gathering, Isabela maps out her tactic to get through it. “I need to establish firmly in my mind what my food boundaries are for each particular experience,” she says.

For buffets, Isabela eats at home beforehand in order to steer completely clear of the ever-present cornucopia. “I need to turn a blind eye to the buffet, which will be calling to me.”

Although Isabela generally avoids alcohol—“it’s high in calories, weighs down judgment and lowers will power”—she’ll sip a small glass of wine or, preferably, a no-cal beverage throughout the festivities.

“To hold a glass or mug while mingling helps me feel like I’m part of the party,” the Arizonan explains.

Susan remembers the first challenge she faced after returning home in December from a rehab program, where she had cast off the first of her 250 pounds. A business associate invited her and her then-husband to a New Year Eve’s dinner party at his posh New Jersey suburban home.

Now 24 years’ abstinent, these days Susan has no trouble phoning a host before a dinner party to ask what the host will serve, but she vividly recalls her distress on that first occasion.

“I was scared out of my mind, fearful he’d think I was an unsociable crank,” she recalls. “I had to practice what to say.”

A therapist suggested key phrases, among them “on doctor’s orders.” Susan told the host she hoped he’d not be insulted but her doctor had prescribed a diet. She offered to bring her own meal.

“‘Of course, I’m not insulted!’ he said,” Susan recalls. (She’s since learned most people are happy to accommodate, as are restaurants and caterers, if consulted beforehand.)

As she walked up to the home, “dressed to the hilt,” she felt silly carrying a plastic meal container. But when they all sat down to eat, others commented only on how delicious Susan’s healthy selection looked.

As midnight neared and guests drank and noshed, Susan nibbled on the piece of fruit she had brought. She tooted her party horn that night and again the next morning. “I woke up January 1 and felt so proud of myself. I was clean. For once, I hadn’t succumbed to my disease.”

William E. Cohen, co-author of the textbook Uppers, Downers, All Arounders: Physical and Mental Effects of Psychoactive Drugs, says that, like all addictions, food addiction is “ultimately biochemical, a true disease.” To oversimplify, the brain’s “go switch” for survival behaviors, including eating, is over-activated, and its “stop switch” damaged. “Communication between the thinking brain and the craving brain is disrupted,” Cohen says.

Susan has since purchased an insulated bag fashionable enough to double as a pocketbook, which renders her less conspicuous than did the plastic food totes.

Nick also travels with “a stash” in his car—canned tuna, sugar-free protein bars, apples, carrots—so that he’s prepared “if worse comes to worst” and an event offers nothing he can eat.

When possible, Nick prefers to host holiday gatherings. He’s outgoing, loves to cook, and his wife also copes with food addictions.

“All the dishes I prepare work for my food plan and my wife’s food plan, and the meal doesn’t lack for anything. I keep the food fairly simple; the difference is in how I spice and season it, how I present it. My big thrill is when guests react to how it looks.” A Buckeye, Nick boasts more than 27 years’ abstinence.

Nick, 5’5” and 140 pounds, doesn’t make desserts but neither does he stop a guest from bringing one. Earlier in his recovery, when desserts loomed as an overwhelming temptation, he excused himself before the sweet finale with, “If you don’t mind, I’m going to go sit in the living room.”

Only a couple of times has anyone argued with him. Once as he rose to leave the dessert table, another guest asked, “Is it really that bad?”

“Yes, it is,” he replied. “I guess I’m just crazy!” By laughing at himself, he said, he made light of the situation while remaining “incredibly serious” about his need to step away. Nick remembers when his first forkful of a holiday meal might easily slide into a binge lasting “days and days and weeks and weeks.”

Passing on dessert is equally demanding for Isabela and Susan—not only do the treats look sumptuous but those who make or bring them also want to show love or friendship by sharing them.

Isabela tells the host, “I’ll have coffee now and some dessert later.” Later, the issue forgotten, Isabela has remained gracious, as well as faithful to her no-dessert resolution.

Jordan often brings something to share so he can have his dessert and eat it, too. Instead of an apple pie, however, he’ll pass around a deep dish of baked apples, sweetly scented with cinnamon and nutmeg and made with no-cal sweetener.

Susan recalls one holiday gathering during which a relative seemed intent on driving her crazy over a noodle kugel the relative had baked. “She must have asked me ten times if I had tried it.”

Finally, Susan relates, “a light bulb went on. I told her, ‘Yes, I did, and it was very delicious.’”

Moral of the story: “fudge” may be the best dessert.

At times, Jordan, seven years’ abstinent and still laboring to stick to his food plan, excuses himself from not just dessert but from entire events. Last year he passed up his parents’ holiday get-together. Other family members, the Californian says, are not dealing with their own addictions—his father to alcohol and his brother to drugs. “My parents are complete enablers.”

At the previous year’s reunion, Jordan became overwhelmed with grief and sadness. To deal with a driving desire to eat, he barricaded himself in a bathroom, desperately praying for strength and phoning a sponsor for encouragement. To avoid such a repeat “retreat,” he’ll absent himself from family gatherings until he feels capable of dealing with them, acknowledging that “certain people in life are going to cause me a level of pain.”

Jordan, 5’7” and 175 pounds, down from 340 pounds, is molding a social life around his Overeaters Anonymous friends. “They’ve become like family and parents to me.” On Thanksgiving, Jordan attended a series of talks sponsored by his local OA group. He’ll participate in the group’s similar social alternatives during the December holidays.

In his mind’s eye, Jordan’s still the 340-pound teen who, right after his physician told him he was morbidly obese, drove to a 7-Eleven to drown his grief in junk food. The now good-looking Jordan attracts women, which perplexes him. His OA friends are helping him revise his body image.

“The program saved my life,” Jordan says flatly. What’s more, he adds, it’s given him a meaningful life and a way to enjoy that life. “If I admit to powerlessness over compulsive eating, it creates a space for something bigger to come into my life. I feel a sense of clarity. Colors seem brighter now.”

Isabela, Susan and Nick echo Jordan’s sentiments that abstinence offers them a year-round gift. But their ability to cope with food addiction is a special blessing during the holiday season. They now focus on the holidays’ meanings and on family and friends, rather than food.

Isabela enjoys the role of “social lubricant” at gatherings. She converses with others and helps them feel at ease.

Nick plans fun activities, gift exchanges and karaoke, so his guests enjoy one another’s company.

Susan rings in each New Year with the satisfaction of wrapping up another twelve months of “doing what’s good” for her.

It all adds up to a lot of holiday cheer.

Emily Wade Will is a writer based in Arizona

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Emily Wade Will is a writer and Spanish-English translator. She is the co-author of Archbishop Oscar Romero: The Making of a Martyr. Follow Emily on Twitter.