Woman Vs. Food: Inside Overeaters Anonymous

The bread basket, a can of frosting, sprinkles by the spoonful — Arianne Cohen was powerless over her food cravings. So she headed to Overeaters Anonymous. But was food "abstinence" the answer?

woman vs. food
(Image credit: Long Tall Sally)

Let me tell you my biggest secret: If you and I dine together and there is a bread basket sitting between us, I cannot focus on what you're saying. I'll try, but really I'm focused on not consuming the entire basket. After we say our good-byes, I'll go home and get ready for bed — or perhaps I'll salve my work stress with a stop at the bakery or celebrate with chocolate-mint ice cream or be thoroughly haunted by a bag of Sprees in a closet two rooms away. Yes, my name is Arianne, and I am conquered by the bread basket.

I tell you this because you are probably conquered by — or addicted to — something, too. Perhaps you're a shopper or a boozer or a gambler or an exerciser or an overworker; or maybe you drown your problems in a snow pile of coke or have some variation on my food issues. We all have crappy coping mechanisms. At least four nights a month, I sit on my couch, overtaken with a bodily feeling that I must eat something. It feels like a lack in my blood vessels that can be assuaged only by food. Frosting is my crack.

Like many, I am saved by the fact that my crappy coping strategy is invisible. I'm not fat, I have never been the 5,000-calorie binge type, nor have I ever required rehab. But a few years back, in a rush of book and article deadlines, the above was my life, and I reached the point where I couldn't stop eating. I'd like to think that no one knew, but I'm well aware of my friend with the passion for wine and the one whose weed habit long ago passed social. I was off-kilter. The owner of the 24-hour corner bodega stopped making eye contact.

This was about the time Lindsay Lohan was traipsing around Hollywood with her (first) 30 Days sobriety medallion from Alcoholics Anonymous, which reminded me that there's a sister 12-step program called Overeaters Anonymous (OA). I clicked onto the OA website and fell into a vortex of conquered women: There are close to 100 OA meetings a week in Manhattan alone. Five daily within blocks of my apartment.

The thought of saying, "Hello, my name is Ari, and I'm a compulsive overeater" kind of made me want to gag. I'm not into self-help. But what were my options? Cutting carbs wasn't the problem, which nixed Weight Watchers; my wallet couldn't bear a pricey university clinic. The Anonymous meetings are free, available around the clock online and throughout town, no appointment necessary. They're sort of like Cheers, the place on the corner where everyone knows your name. And your sin. Also, I was eating sprinkles with a tablespoon. So I went.

My first meeting was held in a church kitchen. I'd picked the meeting at random from the online schedule and arrived to find a beautiful, thin, impeccably dressed brunette named Carrie sitting next to a refrigerator. She looked like she'd never had a weight problem in her life. It turned out that she hadn't in the 19 years since she joined OA. Three more women my age arrived, one obese, one a bit chunky, and one quite thin. Longtime OA members, I later learned, are very thin people who lost their weight extremely slowly on a regimented personal food plan, which, along with meetings, they adhere to like a religion for life. These people never gain weight over the holidays.

The first word of the meeting was "God," in the serenity prayer, followed by a group reading aloud of the 12 Steps. Step 3 is [We] made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him. Step 6 is [We] were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character. Six of the 12 Steps involve God. Carrie passed around copies of the Alcoholics Anonymous handbook, a collection of first-person recovery stories, bound to look like a Bible. I was looking to get off the cake, not find Jesus.

Meetings are rigorously structured, with a stopwatch militarism I imagine helpful to heroin addicts: We read aloud from the Alcoholics Anonymous handbook for exactly 15 minutes, a story about a jailed airline pilot who had flown drunk. I had trouble relating. Then, for exactly 10 minutes, Carrie reflected on the story. For precisely three minutes, each of us shared. Sharing is perversely soothing because there's always someone in the room more fucked up than you are. One woman talked of eating her sister's frozen wedding cake; another told of a public dinner where she downed three glasses of wine and, oh yes, the entire bread basket.

In my turn, I talked about how I've always been this way, dating to toddlerhood, when I was never one to refuse a bottle, drinking until it was forcefully removed. I was outed at age 7, when I couldn't stop myself from eating my first-grade deskmate's Cheez-Its, leading to a classroom-wide acknowledgment that I had eaten Sean's snack. Which, in 7-year-old world, is sort of like a public flogging. I've always been devoid of that "I'm full" feeling others have. The stopwatch went off. We said another God prayer. People offered phone numbers. Then it was over. I went home.

I was baffled. The program structure seemed more related to finding God than addressing my problems. The place where everyone knows your name is a little cultish. My suspicions were confirmed in that night's bedtime reading, the first chapter of the AA handbook, which outlines the program's origins: In 1934, a drunk Wall Street stock speculator named Bill was visited by his born-again friend. In short order, Bill had a spiritual epiphany, stopped drinking, founded Alcoholics Anonymous, and, in a flash of ecstatic light, wrote down the 12 Steps on a yellow pad. (Bill's penchant for LSD has since been well-documented.) In 1960, an obese L.A. housewife named Rozanne co-opted the steps for Overeaters Anonymous, swapping alcoholism for overeating and leaving other terms, like "abstinence," in place. The program hasn't changed in five decades. No nutritionists or mental-health professionals were ever involved.

Naomi Lippel, the managing director of OA, says as much. "We don't try to dilute the message with professional opinions from outside the program. The steps are the steps; this is our program. It's a spiritual component, not a religious component. If it works for you, great." OA is a $1.8 million nonprofit with 4,700 meeting groups nationwide. Twelve-Step has been adopted by facilities like Betty Ford and Hazeldon, as well as the courts. (DUI and drug offenders are often mandated.) Pretty impressive for a couple of amateurs.

woman vs. food

(Image credit: Long Tall Sally)

Still, living on ice cream tends to leave a spiritual void. Carrie called me the next day and summarized the program: Everyone creates a food plan of their choice, and calls or e-mails someone daily with the plan. Many weigh out every meal. Most women — and 87 percent are women — permanently ban foods like bread, cake, and pizza because it's easier to take no bites than one bite. I met a woman who had happily skipped her own wedding cake.

I chose the most common food plan, 3-0-1 (three healthy meals a day, nothing in between, one day at a time), along with OA's suggested rules: Meals must happen on time (no skipping), have a distinct beginning and end (no grazing), and be healthfully caloric (no dieting). I was a little stressed about cramming my 2,200-plus daily calories into three meals, but when she called a few evenings later, Carrie suggested that I list the foods that make me feel peaceful. Not comfort foods, but the ones that make me feel good after I eat them. My list included heaping plates of stir-fry, healthy melts, and traditional dinners — vegetables, mashed potatoes, casseroles. I banned candy, frosting, and bread baskets. Sticking to this would be my abstinence.

As suggested, I also attended daily meetings, part of the beginner's 90 meetings in 90 days. The urban meetings were lighter on religion; one Tuesday in Colorado Springs, I found myself in a thinly veiled Christian prayer group. I noted that on the days I went to a meeting, I stayed on my food plan. I should've been able to do it without a meeting, but functionally, I didn't. I found it impossible not to improve from a daily hour focused on my problem.

Eating 3-0-1 kicks the legs out from under your emotional eating. You just can't do it. It also shines high wattage on your flawed coping skills. On those evenings when I still wanted to crawl through the garbage for a cupcake, it became painfully clear that I was reacting to something else, perhaps a boyfriend crisis or a stack of work. On my happy days, I had to set an alarm to remember lunch. I realized that I'd never actually eaten well-rounded, sizable meals before, and I found them rather satisfying. I suddenly understood French waistlines.

Yet many of my epiphanies had little to do with the OA structures and everything to do with the longtime members, who had an eerily encyclopedic knowledge of exactly how to manage me: One day an alcoholic overeater commented that her periodic kicks of dieting were the equivalent of being a dry drunk, white-knuckling along without addressing the underlying emotional eating. Me too. A struggling obese woman mentioned her work to get off of diet soda, my first awareness that perhaps my all-consuming seltzer habit was a little extreme. A 60-year-old doctor commented that stress and little sleep always result in a spinout, so she now knows that the battle is always fought the night before. And a bulimic 20-something announced that her root problem isn't eating but lying to herself, the "It's OK to do this because I'm having a rough day." All very true.

As I struggled to stick to my plan, I wondered whether the program even works, and was not surprised to learn that some psychologists and psychiatrists deeply question 12-step programs. Numerous, hotly debated studies indicate that 12-step programs are effective for a small minority but not the majority, and that intensive therapy is more worthwhile (though pricier). Psychologists wince at OA's nuances, like the word abstinence. "The reality is that abstinence makes sense for alcohol. It makes less sense for food," says psychologist Edward Abramson, Ph.D., author of the emotional-eating book Body Intelligence. "We make 200 eating choices per day, and none of us is going to do it perfectly. I'm not a big fan of OA. Some people get benefits from the group support, but it tends to promote black-or-white, all-or-nothing thinking, which for eating behavior is a mistake."

The overarching problem is that OA is a substance-abuse program used for overeaters. Step 8 is Made a list of all persons we have harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all. "I can't imagine that people who eat do too much damage to others. It's not like someone who is addicted to heroin," says Stanford psychiatrist Keith Humphreys. Then there's the OA ideology, which deems overeaters powerless over food and in need of God's grace to save them. Addiction psychologist Stanton Peele, Ph.D., is a longtime challenger of 12-step programs. "These groups do so well because they hit a core in the American experience — the whole getting-up-and-confessing-your-sins thing that is very strong with Protestantism," he says. "But it's not a therapy of any sort. What's the therapy? Get up and say you're powerless over something?" Peele bristles. "We essentially have a religious system in place that is not effective, which some people find deeply repugnant, and it's basically immovable."

Humphreys attributes any success to the positive peer pressure. "Groups give people friendship and support so you don't have to be an isolate. And you start to care about the group and what they think, and you want to succeed." He's right. Carrie was pretty and perfect, and I wanted to be in her club.

OA people talk about finding your "home meeting." I found my peers at a lunchtime meeting in midtown Manhattan, their anecdotes familiar, including meltdowns at buffets and active dodging of the date question "So what are your hobbies?" (Um, gorging? Likely while you're asleep in my bed.)

Yet I couldn't swallow the main tenants of the program. Every time someone talked about her "imperfect abstinence," I wanted to yell, "Abstinence is really not the word you're going for!" Each time we wasted 20 minutes reading a story in the book by some 60-year-old male drunk, I wanted to shout, "I think we could find something a little closer to the female eating experience!" I dropped out on day 37.

I did not, as members implied, immediately spiral into a godless world of addiction. I adopted many OA habits, beginning with "sharing," because talking about your feelings for three minutes is kind of great. You often blurt out exactly what you need to hear. Try it with a friend. I also stuck to three big meals per day, but not religiously — I prefer to eat according to my body's hunger. I could once again make eye contact with the bodega owner. I did not find God.

But the periodic cravings for an IV drip of frosting didn't disappear. What did disappear were periodic cans of frosting intended for friends' cakes — and at one point, my roommate's actual confetti cake. And then I would straighten out my act for a few months — before repeating. And so two years after my OA adventure began, I had a powwow with my journal and decided that I was — sigh — powerless over the exact same foods that have conquered me repeatedly for three decades. I would have to be a special kind of slow not to notice the pattern. And I admitted that I should try (wince) abstinence. So on October 4, 2009 — it's OA-chic to know the exact date — I banned frosting and cupcakes and candy from my life. I felt that this was extreme and cultish and unlikely to solve the underlying problems.

The first month was hellish. And then it worked. I dropped 20 pounds, and 80 percent of my crazy cravings disappeared.

I also surprised myself by shacking up with a man whose personal experience with AA makes my life look like Preschool Anonymous. He feels similarly conflicted. We almost never talk about it, but he seems to accept that his girlfriend is fruit loops about food and knows that he can buy either bread or butter but not both.

In the intervening months, I've tinkered with my food rules and figured out that they are successful not by exerting the kind of control and power that anorexics enjoy, but by simply minimizing the situations in which I predictably spin out of control. Food is everywhere, and there's freedom in not having to have a tête--tête with your crazy cravings on an hourly basis. This time around, I'm attempting to avoid outright bans: a dish of ice cream at a restaurant is fine, but a gallon in the freezer is not. Ditto on anything involving whipped cream. I'm still kind of a mess with Mexican tortilla baskets and am considering the options. On December 27, 2010, I admitted defeat to glazed doughnuts. I'll let you know how it goes. This is just what works for me.

I've come to see the Anonymous programs as a place you go when your problem is more problematic than 12-Step. It's a deeply flawed best option. "I'm really glad 12-Step is there because there's no doubt it saves lots of people's lives," Humphreys told me. "But I also think we need some alternatives because many people just don't like it." I would be thrilled to find a nutrition program with the same low-cost and worldwide access as OA, but structured by self-help experts. One doesn't exist.

It's been four years now, and I still periodically go to meetings. They're the only place to find dozens of urbane types who know about the bread basket. Though that problem has faded, too, because at the suggestion of someone in an early meeting, I learned the phrase, "No bread, please."