For the people attending the Food Addicts in Recovery Anonymous (FA) meetings three times every week, food addiction is just as real as an addiction to narcotics or alcohol.
For every single participant of the FA program, consumption of flour and sugar is completely off-limits. The program is based on the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous.
I realized I had taken the idea of food addiction lightly as soon as I stepped through the doors of Grace Christian Reformed Church in Scarborough to attend an FA meeting.
There I was, sitting amongst 10 other people in a small, cozy room; surrounded by a group of middle-aged women who not only seemed to know each other well, but had one big thing in common. Whether they were underweight, overweight or of a healthy weight, they were all food addicts.
“With alcoholics, you can be a heavy drinker but somewhere along the way you cross the line and then you’re out of control. We believe that flour and sugar sets up an uncontrollable craving for us that we are unable to battle on our own,” Cathy, the head of the Scarborough division of the program, said.
But when does food start becoming an addiction, rather than something you simply need?
“I know people who can pick up a bag of cookies and only eat one. I could not do that [before the program] but I’ve been abstinent for two-and-a-half years.” She said the program changed her life.
FA does encourage its participants to talk to their doctors and consult doctors with their meal plan, especially if they’re diabetic or have other health issues. They don’t have doctors working specifically for the program, but this is not really about losing weight or even following a defined meal plan.
“It’s not about the food or the addictive substance as much as what goes on in our head…It’s what we think is difficult; the emotional, spiritual problem that we have. It’s not about a diet,” Cathy said.
“It’s not just about the food, it’s about my life. And my life has improved immensely.”
– Cathy, FA group leader
The participants sponsor each other. They rely on each other for constant support throughout the day over the phone and set up meal plans, catering to specific needs or health conditions. Everybody is to attend three meetings a week; one over the telephone with their sponsor and two face-to-face.
The program offers support for a variety of issues surrounding over-exercising, bulimia, anorexia and overeating. It’s not exclusive to Christians, despite being held at a church. It has slowly broken down every misjudgment I had about the program prior to showing up.
“It’s not just about the food, it’s about my life. And my life has improved immensely,” Cathy said.
Before I walked into the meeting, it seemed trivial to think that something like food, which we need in order to survive, could be a real, physiological addiction.
“Food’s being medically recognized to have addictive-like behavior, and of containing addictive properties,” says Brenda Hartman, a dietitian and graduate student at The Hospital for Sick Children. “I think a program like FA offers support that people might not get from professionals.”
There definitely seems to be a need for FA as the branches have spread from only two in the Yonge and Eglinton area to many other parts of the GTA. The Scarborough one started at the beginning of January. I’m informed the FA program has been around for 20 years, mainly in the U.S.
As I walk out of the meeting, the story that stays with me the most is one of the last people who stood up to proudly share that they have been abstinent for the past 20 years.
People tell me “You’ve been abstinent for two years, can’t you have a piece of cake on your birthday? But it just doesn’t work that way,” Cathy said. “Once an addict, always an addict.”