Overeating can be a way of life and an obsession for many.
It is seen as taboo to overeat, but it’s also looked upon with derision by those who don’t understand eating disorders.
Because there’s so much misunderstanding, people in the 1960’s got together and formed Overeaters Anonymous (OA).
(Please note: I use the term OA term to refer to both Overeating Anonymous groups like Food Addiction Anonymous and GreySheeters Anonymous, as well as Overeaters Anonymous (OA).
The purpose of OA groups is simple:
To use the Twelve Step Path outlined in Alcoholics Anonymous and apply these principles to food addiction, compulsive eating, binge eating, bulimia and anorexia.
If these principles worked for Alcoholics Anonymous, why not take the same principles and apply them to food?
On the surface, alcohol and food seem quite similar. Both are substances which can feel addicting.
But on closer inspection, the person who cannot stop eating compulsively quickly realizes they still have to eat to live!
Unlike alcohol, you cannot be 100% abstinent from food and expect to live for very long!
Today I’d like to discuss some important points regarding OA because I do not believe the principles of OA translate perfectly into solutions for overeating.
Just To Be Clear, Here’s My Background & Potential Biases
Of course, please do keep in mind I’m an Eating Coach & Counselor.
I remember the first time I went to OA, and right away, I remember feeling slightly off.
Perhaps I felt slightly askew because the meeting took place within a church, and I had grown up atheist / agnostic?
Nonetheless, I occasionally went to Overeating Anonymous meetings for a couple years and while I really appreciated the community, my gut feeling towards OA never changed.
Today I wonder, am I just more drawn to more Buddhist philosophies and not Christian philosophies? Or maybe I just am hesitant around churches?
I’m not sure, and admittedly not all OA groups are held at churches either.
And I have other experience that makes me believe OA is not appropriate for treating eating disorders. Basically, I am biased and I’d like to be upfront here about my bias.
As an Eating Coach and Counselor, I use CBT, Intuitive Eating, and other Nutritional approaches to help clients with overeating, compulsive eating, binge eating and emotional eating.
These treatment paths, I would say, are more in the Buddhist line of thought and not the Christian line of thought as outlined in the twelve step program.
Despite my admitted bias, I do think there are pitfalls to OA which need to be talked about!
The Biggest Pro Of Overeating Anonymous
Before talking about the cons of Overeating Anonymous groups, let me first talk about the pros.
I’d like to be super clear right now! The OA approach can offer a significant benefit.
For many people OA is literally life saving. If you attend a group you’ll hear stories of people who hit rock bottom – in terms of food and compulsive overeating- and who even contemplated suicide.
Yes, food struggles are real. People desperately want to stop eating compulsively, but they just don’t know how to stop.
I remember feeling a similar sense of desperation, but instead of going to OA, I found a Tassajara, Zen monastery off the California coast. I lived in this monastery for 13 months!
Now, who in the heck joins a Zen monastery unless they are pretty desperate? Let me tell you, I was desperate and had a strong desire to stop eating compulsively.
I know all too well the all-consuming feeling of being trapped by your thoughts and feeling like there’s no relief, no sanctuary and no hope.
For many people, OA is what Tassajara was for me. A sanctuary. An abode. A place where you finally can connect with other people who are struggling too and don’t know where to turn.
In my opinion, this is the greatest benefit of OA.
If you are feeling alone, dark, confused, chaotic, suicidal, have an eating disorder … OA will welcome you, respect you, listen to you, and help you.
This is priceless.
It’s why even though I don’t fully agree with OA principles, I see what OA is trying to do, and why I want to make sure I praise OA groups before talking about their cons.
If you are all alone, nothing is ever going to work.
OA helps with the darkness, the secrecy, and the hiding and can help you start facing your problems with the help of a supportive, accepting, understanding community.
Other Overeating Anonymous Pros
If you are new to healing food, then some of the principles of OA will be life changing and rightfully so!
These amazing, healing principles include:
Binge eating, compulsive overeating, and emotional eating all have physical, emotional and spiritual elements.
You can’t just expect to follow a diet, or white-knuckle your way to healing and health.
In my private practice, many of the people who reach out know they have been missing something – whether that be nutrition, counseling for their emotions, or a deeper spiritual purpose.
This ‘holistic’ principle is important because you can’t heal overeating unless you heal on all these different levels – physical, emotional and spiritual!
There are lots of healing tools OA will introduce you too.
You’ll learn to pray, to sit in silence, to ask for help, to watch out for your binge eating triggers, to set better boundaries, and to apologize for your own transgressions.
Oftentimes people feel so out of control and trapped by food they feel totally unsafe.
OA offers both a meal plan and, obviously, 12 Steps!
Just having a plan and a set of steps to follow can help people grasp onto something when they are dealing with existential and immediate chaos.
Perhaps the last step of twelve is the best – giving back to others and sharing your personal experience, strength and hope.
I really want to give Overeaters Anonymous credit here – they do an outstanding, truly amazing job of connecting each person to a mentor.
Connecting everybody who wants a mentor is tough!
Their mentorship program truly highlights why OA is such an amazing program. They have so many people who simply want to give back because they themselves experienced something deep and profound!
I hope you can sense that overall I think OA is good. The pros definitely outweigh the cons. If you want to stop eating compulsively OA is a great place to start.
Nonetheless, it’s important we talk about the cons because these are significant too.
The Biggest Con of Overeating Anonymous
The biggest con with OA is the idea of abstinence.
I want to take a strong stance on the matter because this is where I most disagree with Overeaters Anonymous, and feel that Overeaters Anonymous does some harm.
In Overeaters Anonymous, abstinence is where you refrain from bingeing and compulsive eating so that you reach a healthy weight.
This seems innocent enough, right?
But in practice, Overeaters Anonymous groups also advocate becoming abstinent from trigger foods as well, not just avoiding compulsive eating behaviors.
Instead of only abstaining from compulsive overeating behaviors, the practical application of abstinence in OA also includes avoiding triggering foods.
This OA approach to triggering foods actually can end up causing binge eating?
What do I mean by triggering foods?
Well, you know, the usual culprits!
- Ice cream
- Fast Food
From my perspective, this is problematic. By saying certain foods are ‘triggering’, you start down a slippery slope …
Soon people are saying ‘all’ simple carbs are triggering them. Or that dairy, gluten, and spicy foods are triggering to them.
Because if one food is to be abstained from, if one food is triggering, then why not another food and then yet another food?
This gets taken to extremes in Overeaters Anonymous, I believe.
In my opinion, very frequently people in OA demonize what I consider normal foods such as white bread, white rice, plain quesadillas, cheese, gluten, etc.
Plus, abstinence also can basically be about weight loss, but weight loss obsession oftentimes is the very fuel that feeds an unstoppable compulsive overeating addiction!
Now here’s the problem:
When you start saying ‘these’ foods are ‘bad’, then you stop doing the holistic work!
In your desire to stop eating so much, you start becoming hypervigilant to avoid these foods. In almost no time at all OA can become creepily similar to a restrictive diet.
And isn’t dieting and restrictive eating what oftentimes causes people to lose control and binge in the first place?
Again, this is the same problem with dieting.
You’re given a set of rules you try to follow. You spend all your energy on following these rules, but these rules are not holistic.
Spending all your energy avoiding simple carbs means you have no energy left to explore your soul, mindset or emotions!
Doesn’t this sound exactly like an eating disorder to you?
Now admittedly, there is plenty of space in OA for each person to go on their own recovery from a compulsive eating journey.
But based on what I’ve seen and heard, I would say at least around 40% of OA attendees are on some sort of restrictive eating plan, which in my opinion just increases their eating disorder struggles!
This is a huge, huge, huge thing that needs to be talked about.
I know abstinence is a key principle in recovering from alcohol addiction, but transferring the abstinence principle to eating just doesn’t work so neatly.
Compulsive overeating and alcohol addiction just aren’t the same!
We need food to live!
Plus, more modern health approaches – like Intuitive Eating and Health At Every Size – are more effective in my opinion.
Both of these approaches are backed by science and they advocate less restriction around food.
For example, principle three of Intuitive Eating recommends learning how to eat with unconditional permission.
I know this may sound crazy to someone who struggles with compulsive overeating, but perhaps abstinence sounds crazy to someone who embraces unconditional eating!
Overall, the biggest philosophical difference I have with Overeating Anonymous is abstinence. It just doesn’t make sense to me!
Other Overeating Anonymous Cons
The other Overeaters Anonymous issue is a permanent labeling of oneself as an ‘addict’.
I’ve heard of people who, after decades of being in OA, still call themselves an addict.
Deep down, they believe they are broken. And many are still avoiding many foods like white bread or white rice! Talk about limitations!
But I don’t think it needs to be that way.
You can learn to be free, truly free around food. And no, I’m not talking about being ‘free’ and then binge eating right away.
I’m talking about doing the holistic, deep work so you can eat what you want, without fear, and truly be normal with food again.
Because I think that’s the point of healing from overeating, to simply return to food normality or neutrality.
Oftentimes I call this peace with food, or making peace with food.
But peace with food is just being ‘normal’ with food. Just having a nice, pleasant relationship with food.
I don’t believe that you’d call yourself an ‘addict’ if your relationship with food was simply normal.
Trust me, I’ve outgrown my binge eating habits, and now I feel pretty normal around food.
On my Eating Enlightenment podcast, I’ve interviewed dozens of other people who have struggled with binge eating, emotional eating and compulsive eating, but who have used approaches like Intuitive Eating to truly feel free now.
In essence, I do not think that Overeaters Anonymous leads to the truly deep transformation if you still feel like you are an addict – even after decades of work.
Concluding Thoughts To Stop Eating Compulsively / OA
With that being said, I do not think you need to pick between Overeaters Anonymous and some other eating disorder treatment approach.
I think it’s totally possible to do both OA, and different approaches at the same time.
You might need to reconcile some ideas – like abstinence – but there’s some research which shows that the community aspect of OA can be beneficial.
Obviously I would agree on this point.
Overall, to conclude this opinion piece I’ll offer an opinion.
Try Overeaters Anonymous. See if it gels with you. But don’t get too stuck on abstinence. There are other treatments available that have different flavors and underlying belief structures.
Get exposure to those treatments too!
Meta Description: This blog post is on Overeating Anonymous, the program to recover from compulsive eating. Here’s a simple description of what this organization does and how it can help you overcome your food addiction.