Strategies and tactics for eating out abstinently

Most OA members are not nuns or monks cloistered away from the world. We have lives that are variously complicated, sociable, compressed, or festive. That means we sometimes, perhaps often, eat out. Whether that means at a sit-down restaurant/function, a take-out place, a holiday party, or grabbing something at the supermarket or corner store, we need strategies and tactics that are portable and flexible. Because no matter how determined we are to plan every single meal we eat, the day will come when life throws us a curveball, and we’ll need to eat out.

So let’s look at a couple general strategies as well as tactics for each of the situations mentioned above.

GENERAL STRATEGIES

  1. Trust and rely on our Higher Power: In outside-the-house situations, our addictive mind might tell us that it’s OK to bend the rules to a place where we’ve warped those rules into unrecognizable untruths about our food. We can’t trust our thinking, so we have to turn it over to HP and listen for the intuitive thoughts that will keep us on the beam. Prayer is our number 1 best move.
  2. Check our motives: As the Big Book suggests, we ask ourselves whether we have a good reason to be there. Are we really hoping to indulge our interest in jazzy, sexy foods: fats, salts, maybe flours? Are we seeking volume? Are we trying to rekindle old romantic feelings for food?
  3. Have OA’s tools at the ready: The 9 tools are totally portable thanks to smart phones. We can read literature, make calls, text, write in the form of email, and tell another member what our food will be for the meal.
  4. Remember it’s just one meal: If the worst thing happens and we can’t get something we like that meets our abstinence requirements, we won’t die from eating something we’re not crazy about.
  5. Don’t eat no matter what; no matter what don’t eat: No matter what social awkwardness could result, whether sending a meal back or measuring at the table, we need to be prepared to not eat a substance that will send us into a binge no matter how strange it might seem to others. We can always tell them we have a deadly allergy, because that’s the truth.

Now here’s a few suggestions our members have shared for particular outside-the-house situations.

RESTAURANTS

  1. Steer clear of triggering establishments: If we are asked our opinion on where to eat, we aren’t shy! For example, if we can’t eat pasta or pizza safely, we tell our fellow diners that we don’t want to go to an Italian restaurant!
  2. Check the menu ahead of time: The internet is a wonderful thing for OA members. We can read a menu beforehand, and walk in with a committed plan.
  3. Decide on how much to eat before arrival: Some members commit to eating what’s on their plate and nothing more. Or to only having an entree. Some may order a half portion or decide ahead to eat only half. One of our local members has a “One-third rule” where they leave one-third of the food behind.
  4. Bring a scale: Some members’ diseases lie to them about quantities. They may choose to bring a scale with them to be as honest as possible.
  5. Ask questions: We can’t afford to accidentally ingest our triggering substances (e.g. sugar, flour, salts, fats) or specific trigger foods. We ask waitpersons about ingredients. They’d rather us ask first than send something back.
  6. Have a worst-case scenario: What if a restaurant prepares something in a way you didn’t realize would be non-abstinent for you? Perhaps you can scrape off a sauce or coating. Or you could trade meals with someone else. Or you can simply send it back.

PARTIES

Many of the suggestions for restaurants apply to parties, of course. But many times, parties have a spread rather than a sit-down, a buffet-style smorgasbord of appetizers or even main courses, and this scenario presents its own set of difficulties.

  1. Decide what a serving is: When we’re talking about little plates, this gets shifty, especially for those of us prone to grazing. We can talk with our sponsor about what exactly a serving will mean.
  2. Only eat food that’s on our plate: We don’t eat anything directly from its serving dish, a classic grazing maneuver.
  3. Eat before attending: That way we won’t be hungry, and we eliminate a potential justification for eating.
  4. Arrive late or leave early: Reducing the length of our exposure reduces our risk

MEALS ON THE MOVE

Uh oh. We’re running late to an after-work appointment (maybe an OA meeting!) and we just got out of work. By the time the appointment is over and we get home we’ll be ravenous! Classic HALT territory. So we might decide to get something at a store on the way or a take-out place. With both hunger and lateness affecting us, it’s important to make wise decisions.

  1. Take a deep breath: It’s hard to make sound food decisions when our brains are running 100 miles an hour. Before we enter the store or take-out joint, take a big, deep breath or two to clear out the craziness for a moment.
  2. Update our food plan for the day: If we committed something different than this on-the-run meal, we tell our sponsor about the change so that we are still tethered to a source of support and accountability.
  3. Have an emergency backup meal idea: Some members have an emergency back-up plan just for situations like this. A reliable, abstinent, appropriately sized meal they can zip through most any store to get quickly. For example, we might choose to have a piece of fruit, an adequate serving of nuts (often available in bulk or in sleeves with specific amounts), and a bottle of water. Or if a local take-out place has an appropriately sized, abstinent item, we might fall back to it in emergencies.
  4. Pause to read labels: When we are in a major hurry, we might pick up something that seems abstinent at first glance, only to discover later to our horror that it wasn’t. For example, some companies put sugar on dry-roasted peanuts. It pays to take a few seconds to check the ingredients while we are still in the store to avoid disaster after.

There’s lots more ideas for ways to eat out safely and sanely. Restaurants are not opportunities to go all wild-west on our food, nor should we sit in them acting like we’d rather be anywhere else. We let our HP show us how to be in the situation, we listen and engage with others, and we remember that it’s one day at a time.

9 choices every OA needs to make every day

We compulsive eaters are powerless against food. Once we take the first bite, we lose the power of choice in eating, as well as in many other aspects of our lives. We come undone when we eat compulsively, and our disease takes us on a nightmarish roller coaster we seem unable to step off of.

That means that in OA we have many, many important choices to make to keep ourselves on the path of sanity, clarity, and serenity. Here are some of the most important of those choices that OAs face every day.

1. Am I choosing to acknowledge the truth about my food addiction?

We food addicts are great at denial. We’ve been telling ourselves for years or decades that  we’re going to get our eating under control any day now. That this will be the last diet program we ever need. That if we just exercised, the weight would come off. That our doctor doesn’t know what he’s talking about. That the aching in our knees or back aren’t caused by our weight. Deep down inside, we know the truth, but we don’t want to admit it.

2. Am I choosing to consider this a killing disease?

So maybe we eat too much and can’t stop. So what? We’re probably just exaggerating the problem. We’re making too much of it. So maybe our A1C is nearing diabetic levels. Plenty of people live with diabetes. So maybe we’ve had chest pains from time to time. Could just be anxiety. So maybe we’ve wondered if life is worth continuing the way we’re going. Surely everyone thinks that at some point. A killing disease? Aren’t those OA people exaggerating?

No. We’re not.

3. Am I choosing to be in OA?

There’s a difference between being a member and being in OA. Claiming membership is very simple, and our Traditions tell us that the only requirement for membership in OA is a desire to stop eating compulsively. Being in OA means we are fully engaging with the program as best we can given our level of experience.

4. Am I choosing to attend meetings?

An old OA saying tells us that meetings are the first thing to go, and the food is the last thing to go. If life gets busy, are we making time to make meetings? Do we go even if we’re tired or would rather do something else? Those impulses to stay away one day at a time often indicate that we need a meeting much more than we realize. For newcomers unsure if they are in the right place or old-timers with only one foot in the door, our collective experience suggests that we might attend meetings until we are certain we are in the right place or until we are ready to drag the other foot back through into door.

5. Am I choosing abstinence?

Abstaining from our binge/trigger foods is one of the big points of OA. But abstinence is more than what we eat, it’s our mindset about our eating. It’s acting one day at a time on the belief that we won’t eat no matter what, and no matter what we won’t eat. It’s also using OA’s 9 tools and letting the fellowship support our abstinence instead of going it alone.

6. Am I choosing to do OA’s 12 Steps?

Many of us get scared by one or more of the Steps. We get hung up on the wording or hear internalize other people’s fear of them and stop in our tracks. But the Steps of OA are the program. They are what get us better. We must do them in order to recover, and they are not an a la carte menu. We do them, in order, and with the help of our God so that we can be well again. Without the Steps, we’re just doing another diet program.

7. Am I choosing to abide by and protect OA’s 12 Traditions?

 

The Traditions are to meetings what the Steps are to individual members. They are a set of principles for action that allow our organization to function safely and sanely. They also arise out of experience, not out of someone’s fanciful ideas. If we want OA to be around for us, we need to abide by and protect the Traditions as those before us have done. If not, then we will repeat the same mistakes that led to their creation in the first place! We need OA healthy and thriving so that we can be healthy and thriving. So we ask ourselves: Do I know the Traditions? Have I studied them? Am I willing to stand up for them when it’s time?

8. Am I choosing to help others who still suffer?

The most important person in OA is the newcomer. They are the lifeblood of OA. They also help our recoveries. When we help another, we get much of the benefit. Are we “too busy” to help someone? If so could that mean we are too busy to help ourselves? Self-sacrifice, as our OA literature reminds us, is part of this program.

9. Am I choosing to support OA by doing service?

Let’s be honest. Service is an issue in our area. Are we raising our hands, volunteering to do service of any sort when the call is issued? Do we speak when asked? Do we carry the bag or the key? Do we do the honor of serving our group as an Intergroup rep? Do we act as speaker seeker or treasurer for our meeting? Do we volunteer to support initiatives at the Intergroup level? We each have many helpful skills and talents that might support any number of helpful OA opportunities to carry the message to still-suffering compulsive eaters. We might ask ourselves why aren’t we doing service? What fear or resentment keeps us from saying yes? Why might we be content to let a small number of others do the work of OA for us?

OA is a program designed to help us make better choices with our food and our life. And these nine choices we make every day are crucial to our recovery.

Tradition of the Month: Controversy

8. Overeaters Anonymous should remain forever nonprofessional, but our service centers may employ special workers.

 

Tradition 8 ain’t sexy. It seems like a throw-in. “Hey, guys, by the way, don’t hire anyone to carry the message or run the joint.” But Tradition 8 is vitally important to OA for reasons that become clear when we think about how controversies play out in the fellowship.

One such controversy that pops up from time to time is who is allowed to share during an OA meeting. Some meetings may create restrictions on sharing based on presumptions about a member’s quality of recovery. These restrictions may violate OA’s Traditions and bylaws, and that’s where things get testy—and where Tradition 8 saves us.

Unlike most organizations where all the power rests in the hands of a few (a CEO, a board, or a presiding committee), in OA, the power rests with the many. Our service structure looks like an upside down triangle, with meetings at the top, intergroups serving them, the regions serving the intergroups, and the World Service serving the regions. This structure is counterintuitive to a hierarchical society like ours that often opts for centralization as a means of creating economies of scale. But OA would have withered and died were that the case.

That said, those who take on increasing responsibility in our service structure are asked to deal with controversies like the example above. A member complains to the Intergroup about the situation. The Intergroup appeals to its Region trustee for guidance, and that trustee may well consult with World Service for expertise on interpreting whether the situation demands action. And when it does demand action, things get dicey. The Region trustee may tell the local Intergroup that this represents a violation of Traditions. The Intergroup can then inform the meeting that its practices are not sanctioned by OA. To be considered part of OA, a meeting must agree to abide by OA’s Traditions and bylaws, and if it is out of compliance, it’s reckoning time.

In the business, government, and non-profit worlds, showdowns like this are filled with game playing, leverage taking, and personal agendas. Professionals typically have competing incentives as they negotiate a situation: Is what’s best for the organization in my team’s best interests or my own? Will I get noticed for promotion if this thing comes out in our favor? How can I gain power of a rival in this situation? How can I avoid being fired?

Because OA is nonprofessional, we don’t have those kinds of worries. Wherever in the service structure we may find ourselves, from a meeting to the World Service, we are still just another bozo on the bus. We pray for the right answers, we seek common ground in the OA principles represented by the Steps and Traditions, and we leave aside petty questions of pride, position, and power.

In fact, nonprofessionalism allows us to take a more kindly view in our example situation. If we carry anger over the World, Region, or Intergroup-level service person asking us to consider changing our meeting format, we can ask ourselves whether we honestly believe they are trying to harm us or our meeting. Could they instead be trying to safeguard OA’s Traditions? Is it possible that we have a difference of opinion over which Tradition supersedes another? Are we all working toward the same goal of helping others? When we ask ourselves Who are they to tell us what to do?!, could the answer be that they are OA members just like us?

Is it possible that they have ulterior motives? Of course. Pride gets in everyone’s way. But when it comes to OA, what’s there to be gained by exercising power over an anarchic organization?

If those in the service structure were professionals, we’d be questioning their motivations constantly. We’d wonder what power game they were playing. We’d ask ourselves if they put OA principles after personal gain. When we asked ourselves Who are they to…?!, our answer would be someone from outside who doesn’t really get OA. But because OA service is done by us, without compensation, we can perhaps take a more charitable view of the matter and consider the other party’s perspective with an easier mind.

Step of the Month: Becoming willing

8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.

There are two parts to Step 8: make a list and become willing. We’ve talked extensively in a previous post about that list, so let’s focus more on the willingness. What we’re really becoming willing to do is ignore our pride and our fear.

Our pride may tell us that this is all too much. It will imagine forward into the ninth step. It may tell us that the process will feel humiliating, like begging forgiveness on our bended knees or like prostrating ourselves before another person. The Big Book gives sound advice. We are never to be “scraping or servile” it says. We are absolutely not making amends to gain forgiveness. That’s selfish thinking—as in What can I get from this encounter? In fact, we are not aiming to gain anything, only to do what we can to put as square as possible the relationships we’ve skewed through our behavior as food addicts.

Rather than listen to our pride and its imaginings of the future, we keep it in the present and just pray for willingness.

Our fear is more potent yet. It may tell us that making amends threatens our emotional or even physical well-being. Or that we just can’t do it. We are likely afraid of encountering anger, rejection, or bad feelings. We may also be afraid of letting the words fall from our mouths, for shattering the idea that we’ve been perfect or never wrong. Again, fear is projecting a future that is unlikely to occur. Most amends go smoothly, some go delightfully, and, yes, some don’t go well. It doesn’t matter. Right now, we are merely becoming willing to go through with them. If someone becomes angry at us, they have every right. After all, we harmed them!

Rather than listen to our fear and its imaginings of the future, we keep it in the present and just pray for willingness.

If we remain unwilling to commit to this path, we pray until we become willing. But we don’t need to sit passively by either, awaiting spiritual dew drops of willingness to fall onto our foreheads. Instead, we can talk to others about what’s blocking us. Having just put down the food, taken inventory, and had our defects of character removed, we can test the new clarity our HP has given us to consider the costs and benefits of moving forward or staying at Step 8. Let’s look at them.

 

STAYING PUT

Costs

  • I’ll eat again because I’m not growing spiritually and I’m not completing the program of action that’s known to work
  • My relationships won’t improve or change
  • I’ll still feel discomfort about the harms I’ve caused

Benefits

  • I won’t have to admit I’ve been or done wrong
  • I won’t have to face fears or anger and rejection
  • I won’t have to give up control of the situation

MOVING FORWARD

Costs

  • I’ll have to swallow my pride
  • I’ll have to summon courage from HP to face my fears
  • I’ll have to accept the outcome, whatever it may be

Benefits

  • I’ll be growing spiritually and taking out insurance against eating again
  • I’ll feel freedom from self-resentment about the harms I’ve done
  • My relationships and life circumstances will improve
  • I’ll feel self-esteem for following through on something difficult
  • Other peoples’ lives may change for the better because I’ve have broken the negative cycle between us

Seems pretty straightforward. We exchange a little discomfort for a truckload of blessings. This is exactly why the promises we read at most meetings are found in the ninth step—because we can’t get those promises without cleaning up our side of the street. Only then do we receive the entirety of the spiritual bounty that OA promises us.

Emotions are very, very powerful. They are often also misleading. As people in recovery, we understand that we’ve let our emotions run our lives into the ground. As we become willing to make amends in Step 8, we are reminding ourselves that our Higher Power runs the show, not our feelings. We still have our feelings, but we now have Steps 10 and 11 as well as the nine OA tools to safely deal with them. They needn’t block us from taking action that will save us instead of action—or inaction—that will kill us.