What Are the 12 Steps of Overeaters Anonymous?

OA is a “12 Step program” that saves our lives from the insidious danger of compulsive eating. But what exactly does that mean? What are the Steps? Why are they important? What happens if we do them? Or don’t do them?

“Our Invitation to You” from the book Overeaters Anonymous (aka: The Brown Book), tells us that OA is “not a diet and calories club.” While many of us come into OA wanting a solution to the physical issues that our eating has caused us, our program literature tells us that our cravings for food are “but a symptom.” A diet-and-calories club won’t address the underlying emotional and spiritual issues that allow the disease of food addiction to prey so easily on us. But that’s exactly what the 12 Steps are designed to do. That’s why our primary purpose is “to abstain from compulsive overeating and to carry the message of recovery through the Twelve Steps of OA to those who still suffer.”

And so, what are those Twelve Steps? To put it as succinctly as possible, the Twelve Steps ARE the OA program of recovery. The Steps are simple but not easy. They require commitment, which we addicts often find in short supply, and they require facing the facts about how we’ve run our lives so far. Sometimes we’d rather duck the Steps altogether because we think the process of opening our hearts and hurts for healing will be more than we can stand. Probably every OA member has tried to get around the Steps at one time or another, and there are many tried-and-true ways to avoid them. Many of us have told ourselves that we don’t need the Steps to recover, we’ve gone to a different meeting where the Steps aren’t emphasized, fired the sponsor who recommended we start or finish them, told ourselves that the problem is our food plan and put all our attention on it, or we simply dropped out of OA and ate. But the pain of our disease brings us back to the Steps because we can’t live long or happily with the emotional and spiritual baggage that our disease uses to keep us enslaved to food and chained to our problems and our negative thinking. Once we know, there’s no not knowing.

So what happens if we do the 12 Steps? For one thing, we arrest our compulsive eating one day at a time. But that’s not even close to everything we get from the program. All of our program literature is filled with wonderful promises. We read a mere sampling at most meetings. Rather than repeat “The Promises,” which most meeting read, here’s some promises from the OA Twelve and Twelve:

From the isolation of food obsession we have emerged into a new world. Walking hand in hand with our friends and our Higher Power, we are now exploring this world, using the great spiritual principles embodied in the Twelve Steps as the map to guide our way…. (106)

We will be shown a way of life that is happy, joyous, and free, and in which we can finally be of true help to others. A definition of recovery is “to return to usefulness,” and that is another of the many benefits of the Steps.

We always have the option of not doing the Steps. They are a suggested program of recovery. But haven’t we already put ourselves through enough pain? If we don’t do them, we stay with the devil we know—our cravings, our bodies, our emotional pain, and the pain of being detached from anything spiritual. If we do them, and with an open mind and heart, we may find that the devil we don’t know is actually the Higher Power we didn’t realize we’d always wanted contact with. At the worst, we’ll have done some good work toward understanding who we are and what makes us tick.

Ultimately, a 12-Step program without the Steps is like a car without an engine. We might be on the road, but we’ll be stuck just where we are.