I’m Not A Food Addict And Neither Are You

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Hi, I’m Jenny, and I’m not a food addict.

I am in recovery from over a decade-long eating disorder and many more years of chronic dieting, distorted body image, orthorexia (the obsession with “clean” or “healthy” eating), and weight preoccupation. Now, having recovered, I am a therapist in private practice in Philadelphia helping others end the war with their bodies and find peace with food.

My recovery journey included a residential stint at one of the country’s premier eating disorder treatment centers. I relapsed within a few weeks of discharge, returning on and off to the cycle of restriction followed by bingeing and purging that characterized my life for years prior. Looking back now, I can see how the meal plan provided in treatment prevented me from learning to eat intuitively, which sabotaged any chance of staying free from bulimia on my own at that time. Without my current understanding of intuitive eating, I assumed I had failed treatment just as I had failed every diet, and figured that there was just something fundamentally defective about my relationship to food. 

I was living in New York City at the time. Everything in New York is on another level, including the “wellness” craze. I started seeing a holistic nutritionist who prescribed me a new, turbocharged set of food rules that offered a sense of control over my chaotic life. She warned of the addictive properties of sugar (the science behind which is totally lacking and has been thoroughly debunked elsewhere, therefore I won’t expand on this here), literally showing me pictures of a pile of sugar next to a pile of cocaine in order to make this case. She also strongly encouraged attending Overeaters Anonymous (O.A.), a 12-step program for those who identify as addicted to food. 

As a single, struggling nonprofit employee steeped in intense body shame, I wanted what she had: extreme thinness, marriage, financial security, and presumably all the happiness that society tells us comes with these things. So I followed the rules, which like all good diets provided some temporary sense of control, and I went to the meetings.

For nearly two years I arranged my life around O.A. meetings across the boroughs of New York. Unlike programs such as A.A. in which abstinence is clear-cut (you either drink or you don’t), in O.A. you define your own abstinence. I conveniently set mine as “no bingeing or purging”, which meant that everything on the restrictive end of the spectrum was fair game. Each night I was to email my sponsor my food plan for the next day and report on my adherence to the plan the day before. As a side note, my sponsor, like so many people I met in the rooms, is an incredible person I admire to this day. 

But since I was subconsciously restricting—essentially eating what might be enough for some but was definitely not sufficient to fuel my body and lifestyle—I always ended up eating more than I had planned for. Even if only a few bites more, I had to report this daily as some type of overdraft. I wasn’t bingeing and purging though, so by my own definition I was abstinent.

The meetings themselves became another diet, more numbers to measure myself by—how many had I attended that week, what step was I on, how many days of abstinence did I have, how many people did I sponsor? As I accrued more days of self-reported abstinence I began receiving requests to speak at meetings. Like any good diet, my compliance meant I was finally worthy of taking up space, of being seen. 

When I found myself obsessing about food (which was all the time), I was prompted to reflect on my deficiencies within the program. To look for more opportunities to rein myself in, to punish. Get to another meeting, take on another sponsee. My food obsession was linked to my selfishness and grandiosity, never to the possibility that I simply needed to eat more while trying to navigate a minefield of strict food rules.

I dropped out halfway through Step 4 in which I had to catalogue my every flaw, including any negative emotional reaction to someone else (“a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves”). As someone who’s dealt with disordered eating, distorted body image, depression and anxiety, I don’t need any help putting a microscope to my every fault and blaming myself for others’ actions. Can it be useful to examine our fears and resentments? Absolutely, when it comes from a place of curiosity and compassion, not shame and rebuke, and ideally when guided by a trained professional who can help distinguish between the reality-based voice of the healthy self and the abusive inner critic or eating disorder voice.

Years after leaving the fold of O.A. and abandoning the myth of food addiction, switching to a career in social work and moving back to my native Philadelphia, I had the privilege of working with pregnant and parenting women in treatment for opioid use disorder. I witnessed hundreds of women desperately trying to break free from the hell of heroin addiction, get their lives back and preserve their families. 

On a daily basis I saw many of these clients, not yet ready to face the traumas and wreckage of their lives, furtively leave treatment sessions or groups to get high in the bathroom. I’ve seen the physical signs of opioid withdrawal: watery eyes, runny noses, yawning, and heard complaints of many others: diarrhea, muscle aches, insomnia, the feeling of skin crawling. 

I’ve never had a client who struggles with binge eating present for our session in the midst of a binge or, to my knowledge, excuse themselves from our session to eat. I’ve never had a client lose their job for bingeing (although workplace weight-based discrimination is a whole other issue) and resort to selling their body for binge food. It feelslike you can’t stop eating during a binge, but eventually you do, and many people can eat more moderately in between binge episodes. There is no moderate heroin use, as true addiction entails increased tolerance, and more of the addictive substance is needed to achieve the same effect. 

The vast majority of binge eating occurs in the context of some kind of restriction (this could be another post entirely). No one starts using heroin because they just don’t have enough opioids in their system, whereas inadequate food intake makes anyone vulnerable to bingeing. Just as cars aren’t addicted to gas by virtue of needing it to run, we aren’t addicted to food. By design these substances will have to be replenished. We are all “powerless” over food because, without exception, we all need it regularly to live. This isn’t addiction, this is physiology. 

I’m Jenny. I’m a therapist and a social worker. I’m a wife, daughter, sister, friend. I’m a lover of yoga, animals, art and travel. I’m a survivor of disordered eating, depression and anxiety. 

I’m not a food a food addict, and neither are you.


Melissa Alam