Overeaters Anonymous
Bookmark and Share

Overeaters Anonymous basic text

Overeaters Anonymous (OA) is a 12-step program for people who suffer from compulsive overeating. Although most people in OA rely on a rigid food plan, this is not a mandated by OA World Services. Theoretically, each person can choose his or her own food plan, and this plan could be Normal Eating.

Normal Eating is very compatible with the OA philosophy. Both focus on curing compulsive eating versus weight loss per se. OA looks to a higher power for help, and Normal Eating looks to body wisdom, which is easily conceived as the voice of a higher power.

In OA terms, Normal Eating could be described this way. Our bodies were created by a higher power - something greater than ourselves. Our bodies have within them knowledge and wisdom that our puny brains can't begin to grasp. Our bodies maintain themselves without any conscious effort or control. Our bodies also know exactly what they need for fuel to survive. They are perfectly tuned detectors.

But body wisdom speaks to us in a whisper, and if we have a lot of noise in our heads from emotional cravings it can be hard to hear what our bodies are saying. Learning to tune into body wisdom - the voice of our higher power - is a primary goal of Normal Eating. It is also a primary goal of OA.

According to this view, the third step - letting go of our will, and turning it over to a higher power - means listening to our bodies, not our minds. When we ignore our bodies' signals and eat despite pain or discomfort, it's "self-will run amok". People in OA are told to pray for willingness. Applied to Normal Eating, this means praying for the willingness to act in accordance with body wisdom, for the strength and courage to sit with whatever is bothering us, and for the compassion and self-love to live with our choices if we are unable to do it.

Gap in Theory versus Practice

Unfortunately, while these ideas are compatible with OA World Services principles, they aren't supported by most OA meetings. OA, as it exists in the real world, says that our higher power is not inside us, and we must look outside of ourselves for guidance and instruction on food choices - that we are fundamentally incapable of making good choices on our own. This attitude, which is antithetical to the principles of Normal Eating, is very much part of the OA culture, if not its doctrine, and makes it hard for people in OA to use Normal Eating as their food plan. Normal Eating is about regaining trust in ourselves, while traditional OA says we cannot trust ourselves at all.

Most people in OA define abstinence as following a rigidly defined food plan, where they decide in advance what they're going to eat for the day or the week. Ideally this plan gets prior approval from another person (their sponsor). They must completely ignore all body signals since these are deemed unreliable, and eat according to what the scale says, and rules of nutrition. They are supposed to call their sponsors to ask permission to vary even slightly from their food plan. To eat an unplanned and unapproved pickle is considered a "slip".

I think this is a humiliating way to live, completely invalidating. Also, the common OA practice of weighing and measuring each bite of food promotes obsession with food and eating.

Dangers of the Disease Model

Another problem is the OA disease model. When OA says that compulsive overeaters have "the disease" of compulsive overeating, it's basically saying compulsive overeaters are essentially flawed and can't trust themselves. I think this view is destructive. Body wisdom (the voice of a higher power) exists in people who eat compulsively as strongly and surely as it exists in everyone else. Anyone can learn to hear the whisper of body wisdom - the voice of our higher power - and act in accordance with it. We can trust ourselves. We are not flawed.

It's very different to say our actions are unhealthy versus we are unhealthy. If we're just doing something unhealthy, we can stop. But if we are unhealthy, we're doomed. AA adopted the disease model to take the moral judgment out of alcoholism. It was more helpful for alcoholics to see themselves as suffering from a disease than to be branded as morally inferior. But it's possible to go a step further.

People with addictive personalities tend to cope with stress and pain through compulsive or addictive behavior. But that's just a personality style; it's not a disease. There's even an upside to this personality characteristic. People with addictive personalities can be extremely high achieving because of their intense focus when something captures their interest. The flip side of addictive energy is passion.

People with a history of alcohol or drug abuse should abstain entirely from self-prescribed mood- or mind-altering substances. But process addictions such as compulsive eating don't lend themselves to the abstinence model. In these areas people must learn to be healthy, and I think they can.

This is an excerpt from the book Normal Eating for Normal Weight: The Path to Freedom from Weight Obsession and Food Cravings by Sheryl Canter