Defining our abstinence with OA’s wisdom

It’s all too easy to get tangled up in perfectionism when it comes to our abstinence. Am I abstinent, or aren’t I? Was that a slip, or was my body truly signaling me through hunger to eat? If I change my food during the day, am I not being honest?

Each OA member is different, and, therefore, abstinence differs for each of us. One person’s pastries may be another’s Brussels sprouts. We must each define our own abstinence. Only we know what foods and eating behaviors trigger us.

But we also know that when it comes to food, we are born liars. Denial of our problem was a lie. All the fibs we told others to cover for our compulsive eating were lies. Stuffing bags, boxes, or containers in the bottom of the trash so no one else could see them was a lie. So how do we define abstinence meaningfully and honestly?

OA defines abstinence very simply and broadly so that all members have common ground no matter what food plan or approach they use:

Abstinence in Overeaters Anonymous is defined as the action of refraining from compulsive eating and compulsive food behaviors while working towards or maintaining a healthy body weight. Spiritual, emotional, and physical recovery is the result of living the Overeaters Anonymous Twelve-Step program.

OA provides four important criteria for abstinence:

  • refraining from compulsive eating
  • refraining from compulsive food behaviors
  • working towards or maintaining a healthy body weight
  • doing all of these things simultaneously (indicated by the words and and while in the first sentence).

This is the most basic definition of abstinence available to us OA members. It does not say that anyone must abstain from any specific foods or food behaviors. Instead, the responsibility for that level of specificity is on us. We must be serious and honest about what foods are an issue and what behaviors are an issue. Then we avoid them.

At the same time, we must also be diligent on the matter of physical recovery. It’s not just about specific binge foods. Eating larger quantities of food than is required to maintain healthy body function is another problem most OAs have in common. That’s why a big reason why we’re fat, after all. Still, within that third bullet point are two traps we must be wary of.

First, we must not use the definition of abstinence as a reason to make physical recovery our Higher Power. The point of OA is not to recover from being fat but to recover our lives and stay recovered. Our physical recovery is but one facet of our program, which the second sentence in the definition of abstinence tells us. We must work the Twelve Steps to find lasting physical recovery.

Second, we must be honest and rigorous about our journey toward physical recovery. Are we eating the right amount to lose weight? Or are we continuing to eat more than necessary and telling ourselves that losing a pound a year fits the spirit of OA’s definition of abstinence? Are we “getting around” to losing the weight or doing it? Do we know objectively or medically what a healthy body weight is for us, or are we letting our diseased minds tell us that a weight above a realistically healthy weight is just fine. Do we even know what the right amount is to eat for weight loss? Or are we just guessing? Are we committed to the idea that being at a healthy body weight is a way to show newcomers that the program works?

OA has no opinion on the details of diet, calories, and similar matters. The specifics of these are outside issues that every member is encouraged to explore with a medical and/or nutritional expert. OA’s only opinions of matter of diet are to avoid compulsive eating, avoid compulsive food behaviors, and return our bodies to a normal size.

There are sometimes reasons why some OA members may not be able to reach a conventionally healthy body weight for their age, body type, and activity level. For example, some members take medications for serious medical conditions with side effects of weight gain, water retention, general bloating, or other metabolic responses. Other members who have lost hundreds of pounds may have extra skin that causes them to weigh more than they otherwise would. (The choice to have this skin surgically removed is a personal matter and for OA’s purposes an outside issue.) For these members, maintaining a healthy body weight may mean something different than it does for members without these complexities.

Our abstinence begins to take shape as we examine what OA’s definition of abstinence looks like for us. Does our compulsive eating increase when we consume certain things? Fats, sugars, salts, flours, alcohol, or any other “red light” foods that always get us in trouble? Are there “green light” foods that have never played a role in our compulsive eating? Are there “yellow light” foods that we’re not quite sure about? How honest are we able to be with ourselves about these foods? Are we willing to let go of those that fall into the “red light” group?

How about compulsive food behaviors? Are certain times of day perilous for us? Certain rooms in our house? Can we dine out safely? Is watching TV or reading while eating an invitation to mindless binging? There are at least as many compulsive food behaviors as there are OA members.

Once we have awareness of these parameters, we can get to work using the OA Tool of Food Plan. There is no one food plan in OA. Everyone gets to create their own, which is best done under the guidance of a sponsor and with help from our Higher Power. Food plans are a tool to gain abstinence, and we may choose to define our abstinence through them as strictly or loosely as benefits our recovery. OA has no opinion on any food plan nor on what within that food plan denotes abstinent food or behavior. That’s up to us.

That said, we may want to avoid all-or-nothing thinking. Are we seeking progress or perfection? Do we constantly worry whether we are abstinent, or are we keeping our mind on how we can be helpful today? Are we placing the power for abstinence in God’s hands, or are we trying to control our food? Are we working with someone else to be accountable for what we eat, or are we using another human being as a Higher Power-like judge of our abstinence?

Ultimately, we can’t have the perfect abstinence. But if we’re staying open to taking action, trusting our Higher Power to guide our food rather than merely doing another diet, and being completely honest about what we eat, we will have the perfect abstinence for us.

10 questions to ask while developing a food plan

Overeaters Anonymous has no official food plan. This baffles some newcomers because they have experienced dieting programs that supply paying members with plans of eating and sometimes offer foods to purchase for those plans.

In OA, every member is encouraged to develop their own food plan. But just because there’s no single food plan doesn’t mean there aren’t a few tried-and-true guidelines. Many of these can be found in the pamphlets “A Plan of Eating” and “Dignity of Choice” (both of which are included in the OA newcomers packet and are available individually at OA. org), and some local member experience adds some ideas as well. Here are 10 questions we often ask ourselves when coming up with a food plan.

  1. Am I working with a sponsor?
    We start here because if we aren’t working with a sponsor, we’re just trying to control our food on our own. That’s never worked for us before, so involving our sponsor is an important, new difference between OA and our best efforts.
  2. Do I need to consult a medical or dietary professional?
    Before we think specifically about our food plan, we need to know whether there are any foods our doctor asks us to avoid eating due to physiological (allergies), medical (diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, diverticulitis) or medication-interaction issues. Similarly, our doctor may ask us to add certain foods to promote better overall health. A dietary professional may also recommend foods to rebalance our nutrition.
  3. What are my red, yellow, and green foods?
    This simple metaphor comes in handy. Red foods are specific foods or food groups that we obsess about. We can’t stop eating them once we start, and we can’t stop from starting to eat them. Yellow foods are ones we should watch because they creep up on us. They may also be foods that prime the pump for red foods. Green foods are the ones we can eat in safety.
  4. What about alcohol?
    Many people find sugar- and flour-based foods go in the red category. Sugar and flour are simply highly-refined grain-based foods. There’s something about the process of refining foods that many members’ bodies cannot resist. Alcohol is a liquid form of highly refined grains that are fermented in the presence of sugar. Are we clinging to alcohol? If so, it may be wise to eliminate it.
  5. How much food do I need to eat?
    OA’s statement on abstinence includes not only avoiding individual binge foods but also “working toward or maintaining a healthy body weight.” In OA it’s not enough to simply stop eating our binge foods if we are replacing their high with another kind of high that comes with high-volume eating. It is wise to ask a doctor or dietary professional to recommend the amount of food to eat to lose weight safely and effectively.
  6. How often do I need to eat?
    While a good rule of thumb to get started is simply eating three square meals a day, every member’s metabolism is different. Some of us may need to eat smaller meals more often during the day. It’s OK to eat at whatever cadence works for our own bodies so long as we are not eating more than our body needs as a result.
  7. Do I need to avoid any specific eating behaviors?
    Our bulimic and anorexic friends recognize that this question addresses binge-and-purge symptoms and starving. In addition, we might ask ourselves about more subtle symptoms. Some of the behaviors that members in our meetings discuss are eating directly from packaging or containers, eating anywhere other than a table, and eating standing up. We need to identify any such behaviors to avoid, and they are different for everyone.
  8. Do I need to avoid any specific eating situations?
    Here we need to suss out whether we need to keep away from scenarios that trigger compulsive eating. For example, eating at restaurants, parties, or in the car on long trips. Do we need to avoid eating in front of the TV, in bed, or when we are reading? What about at night when we are alone in the house? In a certain room of the house? With certain people? Or at the grocery store? When we are mad, sad, or glad? The list is as long as there are OA members because we each have our own triggering events or situations.
  9. Does this plan fit my life circumstances?
    There’s not much point to to committing to a food plan that involves preparing five-course, preparation-intensive meals if we are a single mom of three working two jobs. It’s setting us up for failure. We need to be sure that our food plan matches the time and energy we have available instead of trying to live up to some lofty ideal and drowning in a sea of chopping, shopping, and sobbing.
  10. How honest am I willing to be?
    This is the toughest question of them all. We’ve spent a lifetime denying our problem, minimizing it, or ignoring it. So how’s this food plan thing going to work if we’ve been inherently dishonest about our eating since forever? It starts with willingness. Are we willing to trust another person to be an accountability partner each day? Are we willing to trust the folks at my meetings when I need to talk about how my food is going? Are we willing to endure the initial turbulence as our body and minds detox? Are we willing to work the 12 Steps in order to insure against relapse? Lastly, are we willing to begin leading a new life that’s really worth living in all the ways our life isn’t when we walk through the doors of OA? Take it from those who have experienced the miracle of healing. It’s all worth it, and so are we.

Traveling in OA…food planning on the road

With Thanksgiving coming up, many of us will be traveling to friends or family for a day, two, maybe even a week of visiting. Others of us travel frequently for business…or pleasure. It reminds us of that eternal question: How do I use a food plan when I don’t necessarily know what will be served?

The answer, as it turns out, is different for every OA member. In part, of course, because we all have an individual food plan. But also, in part, because we all need different levels of structure.

For some of us, eating away from home can be an open invitation to the higher quantities our disease desires. Or to eating some of our “yellow-light” foods: ones we don’t eat frequently because they call to us sometimes, but that we don’t react to as insanely as our “red-light” foods. For others the lack of structure can feel frightening by itself. Doing things a little loosy-goosey threatens the firm boundaries we rely on.

So we each have to work out with our Higher Power and our sponsor what will work for us. There are, however, a variety of strategies that we hear in meetings that we may able to adopt or adapt for our own situations. Here’s a few:

Strategize with a sponsor before leaving.
Failure to plan is planning to fail. Talking to our sponsor before we depart and developing a strategy for the trip is a great way to bring a sense of structure to the journey.

Call ahead, when possible, to see what the menu will be.
Especially when visiting loved ones and friends, we can easily call to see what will be on the menu. If we’re concerned little or nothing will meet our needs, we can not attend, or we can ask if we can bring something we can eat.

Check out eateries along the way in advance.
We can plan where we want to stop if we are driving. The internet allows us to search out and check the menus of eateries before we leave. If we are going on an extended vacation, we can look into restaurants around our hotel or the area we are visiting to ensure we have someplace to get the food we need.

Bring food in the car/plane/train just in case.
Having a small snack item might be a saving grace if we are caught in awful traffic, sitting on a runway, or what have you and unable to eat our scheduled meal. Whatever that small item is, we tell our sponsor about it and keep it in reserve for an emergency.

Don’t always eat out.
If we are renting a house or have a hotel room with a fridge or a small galley, we may be able to buy the food we usually eat and keep it handy. That reduces our eating out and increases the structure we’ll have.

Use a 3-0-1 plan and don’t touch binge foods.
This is the first plan listed in the “Dignity of Choice” pamphlet. If we truly don’t know what our food choices will be, we can keep things simple by committing to three moderate meals a day, nothing in between, one day at a time, and no binge foods.

Stay in touch with a sponsor.
Just because we leave town doesn’t mean we leave our sponsors behind. We may need them more than ever while traveling. Even if we can’t call them without risking our anonymity, we can certainly text or email, both of which are silent. Also, if something is bugging us that may lead us to eat, staying in touch with a sponsor will help us avoid eating over feelings.

Be sure to do a 10th Step inventory at night.
The rationale here is to ensure that we check in our eating. Did we respond to anything in our day by making excuses based on our circumstances while traveling to eat compulsively? Is there anything that occurred during the day that we need to deal with before we might eat compulsively tomorrow?

Most important of all, however, is that we trust and rely on our Higher Power. Many times traveling brings with it stressors such as traffic, lost luggage, or simply the strangeness of being away from home. If visiting family and friends, we may feel ill-at-ease being a houseguest or longstanding conflicts may rear up. In many cases, we may be visiting our eating buddies. Our old way of dealing with these things was to eat for ease and comfort. Now we are in the business of trusting and relying on God. We replace food with God. We sit with difficult feelings and situations, knowing that by not reacting to them with extreme actions or with compulsive eating, we will be OK. We accept a little discomfort now in exchange for keeping the abstinence that allows us to be sane in this world.