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.