Food Addiction: Stories of Teens and Twenties in Recovery
Can a person be addicted to food?
Recovering food addicts say yes. They experience their relationship with food as a form of addiction. They are powerless over where, when, and how much they eat, although many have tremendous willpower in other areas of their lives.
Here are some of the symptoms of food addiction:
- Overeating (bingeing or grazing repeatedly)
- Purging (bulimia)
- Obesity (and related problems such as diabetes, heart disease, and sleep apnea)
- Compulsive exercise and/or dieting
- Obsession with food or weight
- Depression, shame, isolation, and hopelessness related to food, weight, or body image.
Food addiction tends to remain unrecognized because of the focus on these symptoms rather than their underlying cause – addiction.
FA is a program for those who want to stop eating addictively. The first step in FA recovery is abstinence. Abstinence is clearly defined as weighed and measured meals with nothing in between, no flour, no sugar, and the avoidance of any individual binge foods. Abstinence in FA is equivalent to AA’s sobriety.
FA treats food addiction as a threefold illness: physical, mental, and spiritual. Recovering food addicts in FA remain at their goal weight for years and even decades, yet abstinence is not a diet and FA is not a weight-loss program.
Food addicts cannot sustain long-term recovery by merely following a food plan, even when they’ve reached a healthy weight. Long-term abstinence from addictive eating is made possible by a member’s willingness to live a structured way of life and work the Twelve Steps. When members work the Steps in sequence while abstinent, they experience a spiritual awakening and a transformative change in their personality. Their desire to eat addictively is removed, one day at a time.
In this pamphlet, FA members who found recovery in FA in their teens and twenties share dozens of brief stories—specific memories of moments in time—describing their experiences in addiction and recovery. Although not all the details will match your own, you may identify with some of what you read here and feel that there is a place for you in FA.
Life in Food Addiction
In an attempt to control my weight, I binged on diet soda, sugarless gum, and sugar-free snacks. I put things in my mouth all day long, but because they were low or no calorie, I thought I could control my weight. I ended up having terrible migraines and gastrointestinal distress as a result of aspartame poisoning. Despite the excruciating pain, I continued to binge.
For four consecutive summers I lost 30 lbs/14 kg at weight-loss camp and for four consecutive winters I gained back forty. There was nothing I could do to keep the weight off. I tried commercial weight loss programs, diet fads, fasting, shakes, and nutritionists, but nothing worked. I was always the youngest person in every program I tried.
I absolutely hated my body for most of my life, but especially as a teenager. Shopping for clothes was a nightmare and always ended up with me sobbing hysterically. I knew it was impossible, but I often thought about using a knife to carve the fat off my body.
Instead of hanging out with friends, I spent my high school weekends locked in my room playing video games, streaming movies, and ordering food from delivery apps. Even when I wasn't hungry anymore, I still kept ordering just one more thing. No matter how much I ate or what it was, I was never satisfied.
I was always trying to hide my eating. As a kid, I snuck food from the refrigerator and hid it under my shirt so I could binge in the basement. As a counselor at summer camp, I stole food from the kitchen and even got caught by my campers. During college, I would go to the dining hall first thing in the morning — while everyone was asleep — so I could eat what I wanted and not be seen.
I thought all my problems would be solved if I could swap bodies with one of the models on magazine covers. If I had a beautiful body and could wear any clothes I wanted, I would be confident. If I was confident, more people would like me and want to be my friend. If I had more friends, I wouldn't be so lonely. The only people who looked like me on magazine covers were celebrities being shamed for gaining weight.
I obsessively tracked my daily exercise, caloric intake, and weight. Every day, I tallied calories burned and calories consumed, vowing to eat less and work out more — tomorrow. But I hardly ever could.
While working as an assistant to a specialty pastry chef, I shoved samples in my mouth directly from the freezer. I was terrified she’d catch me, so I rushed to eat them as quickly as possible. I wasn’t hungry and I didn’t want to be eating, but I couldn’t stop.
I used to ask my boyfriend to hide sweets from me, saying, “Don’t let me see these again.” Inevitably, I’d change my mind and demand, “Where are they? I just want one.”
I never thought of it as stealing, but I would do whatever it took to find money for food. I regularly stole $20 out of the cash register at work. I needed cash for my binges.
I worked at an ice cream shop in college and I would walk to the store every day and tell myself I wasn’t going to “eat the merchandise,” but within fifteen minutes of opening the store I was shoving spoonfuls into my mouth. To make matters worse, I was lactose intolerant so eating all that dairy tore up my stomach. Even the pain couldn’t make me stop.
In class, I always compared my body to everyone else's. Instead of paying attention to the lesson, I spent my time looking around the room to see if there was someone heavier.
When I was twelve-years-old and 80 lbs/36 kg overweight, I had to get a liver biopsy. The doctors found that I had a fatty liver, high cholesterol, and was pre-diabetic. They told me that if I did not make a change, I’d be dead by twenty. Frankly, that sounded like a relief, I was so exhausted by life, I didn’t want to do it anymore. I knew I needed help.
I started sneaking food at around three or four years old. I remember eating dinner at home and then going to my friend’s house down the block for a second meal. I was 120 lbs/54 kg in first grade (I remember because they weighed us in class). By the time I found FA in high school, I weighed 225 lbs/102 kg, a 100 lbs/45 kg more than I am today.
I was bullied a lot for my weight in middle school. My parents saw me suffering and wanted to help, but didn’t know how. My dad tried to monitor my eating and we got into fights during family meals. Eating was never peaceful.
One time, when I decided I was done bingeing “for good,” I threw away the snack I was eating in a public trash can. About ten minutes later, I went back to the trash can, looked around to make sure I was alone, and fished it out. I reasoned that since it was still in the wrapper, it was probably fine.
I justified taking cash from my mom’s coat pocket by telling myself, she’s my mom, I’m her daughter—what’s hers is mine. I never thought of it as stealing. I would take the dog on a walk and buy us both treats so we could binge together at the corner bodega. My mom later told me she thought she was losing her mind because she didn’t know where the money had gone and why the dog was getting fatter.
I made friends with girls who were thin and cute. They were constantly swapping outfits, but their clothes were too small for me. Being fat made me feel like an outsider.
I couldn’t stay away from the snacks that my roommate kept under her bed. When she asked me if I knew where they went, I denied eating them. She began worrying that someone was coming into our dorm room and insisted on locking our door. Even with no one else to blame, I still continued to eat her snacks.
I was going out for the evening and had every item of clothing strewn all over my floor because absolutely nothing fit anymore. I felt so disgusting. I sat in front of my mirror, shoving food into my mouth and sobbing. I just couldn't understand that the only solution I had—food—was actually the problem.
While binge eating in my room, I saw a mouse scuttle across the floor. I shoved the evidence of my binge under the bed and screamed for help. My housemate came in to try to find the mouse. While looking under the bed, they pulled out empty wrapper after empty wrapper. The look of disgust on their face made me fold over with shame.
I was at volleyball camp and starving myself. My best friend watched with increasing horror as I exercised all day and consumed nothing but diet soda. When she caught me using my toothbrush to vomit–which cut up my throat in the process–she was traumatized and called my parents. As always, they fought over what to do about me. It didn’t matter in the end, because nothing they did ever worked. Eating was hell, starving myself was hell, and I was still fat anyway.
Once when I had bought a bag of candy, I ate most of it while walking to the car and shoved the rest in the back seat, telling myself that would keep me from eating it right away. But of course, I reached right back there while I was driving and almost hit another car.
Eating led me to justify my failing grades. I would eat to "warm up" for an essay prompt. I would eat to "get ready" to study. I just kept eating as a way to procrastinate and then I would think, Screw it, I’m only going to study for five minutes because now it's too late and I’m too stuffed.
I had red angry stretch marks over my breasts, sides, and stomach. I got boils and yeast infections in my skin folds. I had acne, heart palpitations, knee pain, high cholesterol, insomnia, and frequent panic attacks. I was very susceptible to viruses and infections. All of these things went away shortly after I came into FA.
Every now and then I would decide to just love myself and vow to totally accept my big body. This didn’t work because I knew the issue wasn’t just the weight; it was the eating. My problem wasn’t about the number on the scale but the desperation with which I inhaled food and the misery I felt afterward.
When I was thirteen years old and 195 lbs/88 kg, my dad sat me down and told me he thought that I was like a drug addict but with food. I didn’t think it was possible to be addicted to food and the word “addict” made me cringe. His insight stuck with me though, and over time I realized that he was right. It was this experience that made me search the term “food addict” which brought me to FA.
I attended my first meeting wearing my brother-in-law’s jeans (because mine didn’t fit), an enormous sweater, and a baseball cap to hide my greasy hair. I did not identify with the old ladies who were sharing, but I was desperate for someone to tell me how to eat without hurting myself. I got a sponsor and that night, I felt some hope for the first time.
I couldn’t imagine getting abstinent as a college student. How could I study without flour, sugar, and caffeine? Who would want to hang out with me if I weighed my food? Where would I fit socially if I didn't drink alcohol? I discovered that getting abstinent was much less humiliating than being overweight and stealing my roommate’s snacks.
Even though I asked a sponsor to guide me in the program, it took me a while to trust her. Since she had lost a lot of weight and kept it off for ten years, I came to believe her words. Unlike doctors, therapists, and well-meaning family and friends, she had done many of the same shameful things I did with food. She wasn’t giving me advice—she was just telling me what she did. THAT gave her credibility.
Everything my sponsor said seemed contrary to the advice I’d always received about how to lose weight. For example, I’d been told to just eat moderately, so my sponsor’s suggestion to cut out flour (even gluten-free?) and sugar (even honey?) seemed really extreme! And he wanted me to weigh and measure salad? Weirdly, I found relief when I let go of everything I thought I knew, trusted his experience, and followed his advice.
I always thought that I had to do everything myself—that the only way to succeed at anything was to grit my teeth and try harder. But that had never worked with food. In abstinence, when I craved food, I was told to ask for help: call members in recovery, read FA-approved literature, ask my Higher Power for strength, go to meetings. The weight fell off but the real change was asking others for help instead of hating myself for being a failure.
I was terrified to weigh my food in the college dining hall. What would people think of me? At first, I arranged with the dining staff to weigh my food in the kitchen, but after a while, I stopped hiding and brought my scale to the table. I was shocked to discover that no one cared at all what I did with my food.
I’d been in recovery a short time when I mentioned to my mum, “It wasn’t so bad when I was eating addictively!” She looked shocked, and said, “Are you kidding? We had to walk on eggshells around you all the time. We never knew what mood you’d be in or how to cope with your rage. You were so profoundly unhappy.” I guess it was that bad!
Though I’d been an A student, when my food addiction took off, I started attending every study session armed with a large soda, a candy bar, and a big bag of chips. I was so focused on eating that I missed a lot of what I was reading. My grades dropped precipitously. When I got abstinent, I was able to let go of the food distractions and focus. That year I made the Dean’s List.
After I lost weight, I convinced myself that I wasn’t having enough “fun” for someone in their twenties—so I left! But that wasn’t a solution: I gained weight and my life was a mess. Not fun. Once I accepted that I was a food addict, and focused on my recovery one day at a time, I started to find joy—and fun.
When my sponsor suggested I take some time off of dating so I could focus on my recovery, I resisted. I really got that I was a food addict, but I didn’t see what dating had to do with anything. I was only 23, and didn’t want to miss out on meeting my true love. That time turned out to be the most profound of my life, and showed me that I had been using attention as another drug—one that was stimulating enough to sometimes, temporarily, keep me from eating addictively. Today I’m the wife and partner I always dreamed of being.
When I was a few months abstinent, a friend commented on my remarkable transformation. He said, “I’ve seen people lose weight before, but there is something different about you. It’s like a crushing weight has been lifted from your shoulders.” I told him that’s how it felt; I didn’t have to fight with my food obsession any more.
My mom didn’t like that I was taking advice from people she didn’t know. I pointed out that her constant worry about my health and well-being hadn’t kept me from getting up to 279 lbs/127 kg. She became supportive when she saw that I not only lost over 150 lbs/23 kg, but that I’d become less angry and defensive. Eventually, she came to understand that she no longer had to fix me; I’ve always been a food addict.
I was anti-religion when I started the FA program. But I was so desperate to stop eating addictively and so yearning to change myself, that I asked whatever this “Higher Power” was to help. Somehow, when I tapped into that Power I stayed abstinent for 24 hours—and this was after a lifetime of never being able to keep to a diet for even four hours. That’s why I’m doing the same thing 28 years later! I’m still not religious, but I do believe there is a power that’s greater than me working in my life. I find that’s all I ever need.
Life in Recovery
I used to think I could never have children because I’d eat their food. However, my sponsor’s promise came true. On my first day of abstinence, she told me that I would become “neutral around food,” which I now understand means having freedom from food cravings and obsessions. I am astounded that the treats I feed my children don’t interest me at all.
At first my friends were skeptical: “You can’t ever drink alcohol or eat ice cream? Forever?” They worried the program was too controlling. But slowly they saw that I was happier and easier to be around. Their suspicion has turned into respect and their respect has turned into support.
I wondered why anyone would want to date someone in FA. I was ashamed of my eating and felt that being a food addict only proved that I was broken. Sure, some of the folks I dated were put off when I shared about being in a Twelve Step program for food addiction, but the person I ended up marrying was drawn to my honesty and dedication to self-care.
Before FA, my friendships centered around food, alcohol, and drugs. My friends drank and did drugs while I ate. Getting abstinent made me realize we were using each other to feed our addictions and soothe our insecurities. In recovery, my relationships have changed. I’ve learned in FA that healthy relationships are about honesty, trust, and caring—not addiction.
I used to love throwing wild, drunken parties and gathering people together from all parts of my life. In abstinence, I still love having parties. The difference is that now I am focused on the people and not on what I put in my mouth.
Through my recovery in FA I have gotten physically and mentally healthier. I’ve lost 95 lbs/43 kg, am no longer prediabetic, and got off the cholesterol medications that my doctor told me I would need for life.
When I came into FA at fourteen, I was so nervous about how I would handle turning 21 without drinking. Surprise! Seven years later, I had totally changed—all I wanted was to be abstinent. For my 21st birthday party, I rented a theater and did improv comedy games with my friends and family. It was such a blast.
I had no idea there were things to do besides eat and get drunk! Now that I’m abstinent, I’m into mountain biking–me, who was 200 lbs/91 kg at age 20, cycling up mountains!
I didn't know how to study before FA. I'm someone who always wanted immediate gratification and when I wasn't instantly fantastic, I gave up. I took lessons for several musical instruments and never practiced. I started art classes, but when I didn’t produce a masterpiece right away, I quit. I thought that if I really had the talent, I would just be able to do it. In FA, I have gone back to school for a degree in a demanding field. I study by applying the same principles I learned in FA. By weighing and measuring my food one day at a time, I am showing up for other hard things—like my schoolwork.
When I came into FA I was 22 and all I could think about was my wedding—what would I do about the cake? I wasn’t planning to get married yet; I hadn’t even met anyone! A fellow suggested I work the program “just for today” and not worry about the future. By the time I got married ten years later, I didn’t even care about the wedding cake. We did get a cake for others to enjoy, but I don’t remember it at all. My wedding day was the best day of my life up to that point, and it had nothing to do with food.
Dating was one of my biggest fears when I first started FA. What if I had to suggest a different time or restaurant? What would I say about not drinking alcohol? Now that I’ve been in recovery for a while, I’m open with my dates about being in a twelve-step program for food addiction. When I explain how FA has improved my life, anyone worth seeing again is on board.
Something as small as a math problem used to make me panic; now I actually like a challenge. When I was eating addictively, college felt overwhelming and I dropped out. In abstinence, I went back to school and am about to obtain my Master’s Degree. Abstinence has gifted me with newfound confidence.
I can watch movies in the theater without popcorn and candy. At music gigs, I focus on the performers instead of trying to flag down the waitstaff. When I attend sports events, I don’t miss half the game by going to concession stands.
Even as a kid, I had trouble making friends. I wrote notes to other kids in class that said, "Do you like me? Circle one: yes or no." The notes often came back to me with the word "or" circled, which left me feeling fat and different. I did not come to FA for friendship, but being part of FA has taught me how to talk to people and be myself. I have amazing friends today.
On my 21st birthday, I was at the top of the Eiffel Tower—drunk and stuffed with food. On my 22nd birthday, I woke up in bed with a guy I didn’t care about—hungover. On my 23rd birthday, I was alone and bingeing. But on my 24th birthday, I was eating an abstinent dinner with friends. It was an amazing day: simple and joyful.
Since getting abstinent, I’ve re-engaged with things I love doing and have discovered new activities as well; I’ve taken theater classes, tried stand-up comedy, done dance fitness, learned Spanish, and so much more. I’ve made friends in and out of FA who share my interests, none of which are related to food or alcohol. And it’s great!
When I was 23, my mom went into hospice and passed away. Fellows sent me cards and answered my calls at 1 AM. No matter what happens in my life, I am never alone and I don’t have to harm myself with food or alcohol.
Thirty-two years ago, I lost 145 lbs/66 kg, but I still feel amazed when I wake up in a right-sized body every morning. I am always surprised that my summer clothes continue to fit year after year and grateful that I no longer have to worry about my food or my weight.
In recovery, I married someone who understands how important FA is to my health, my body, and my sanity. We have three children, and I stayed abstinent through each pregnancy, gaining and then losing a healthy amount of weight each time. It’s still incredible to me that neither my partner nor my children have ever had to watch me hurt myself with food. I ask for help and guidance from my Higher Power and my fellows, and I show up for my life one day at a time.
There is a Place for You
If you are struggling with food, you are not alone. The recovering food addicts who share their experiences in this pamphlet once felt hopeless. Today, they have found a common solution in Food Addicts in Recovery Anonymous.
The Twelve Steps
- We admitted we were powerless over food—that our lives had become unmanageable.
- Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
- Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
- Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
- Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
- Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
- Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
- Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
- Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
- Continued to take personal inventory, and when we were wrong, promptly admitted it.
- Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.
- Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to food addicts, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.
The Twelve Traditions
- Our common welfare should come first; personal recovery depends on FA unity.
- For our group purpose there is but one ultimate authority—a loving God as He may express Himself in our group conscience. Our leaders are but trusted servants; they do not govern.
- The only requirement for FA membership is a desire to stop eating addictively.
- Each group should be autonomous except in matters affecting other groups or FA as a whole.
- Each group has but one primary purpose—to carry its message to the food addict who still suffers.
- An FA group ought never endorse, finance or lend the FA name to any related facility or outside enterprise, lest problems of money, property, and prestige divert us from our primary purpose.
- Every FA group ought to be fully self-supporting, declining outside contributions.
- Food Addicts in Recovery Anonymous should remain forever nonprofessional, but our service centers may employ special workers.
- FA, as such, ought never be organized; but we may create service boards or committees directly responsible to those they serve.
- Food Addicts in Recovery Anonymous has no opinion on outside issues, hence the FA name ought never be drawn into public controversy.
- Our public relations policy is based on attraction rather than promotion; we need always maintain personal anonymity at the level of press, radio and films.
- Anonymity is the spiritual foundation of all our Traditions, ever reminding us to place principles before personalities.
The Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions are reprinted with permission of Alcoholics Anonymous World Service, Inc. Permission to reprint and adapt the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions does not mean that A.A. is in any way affiliated with this program. A.A. is a program of recovery from alcoholism only—use of the Steps and Traditions in connection with programs and activities which are patterned after A.A., but which address other problems, or in any other non-A.A. context, does not imply otherwise.
What is FA?
FA is a program based on the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous (A.A). There are no dues, fees, or weigh-ins at FA meetings. FA is a fellowship of individuals who, through shared experience and mutual support, are recovering from the disease of food addiction.
FA was formally organized in 1998, although it began as part of another twelve-step program in the early 1980s. Some FA members have been continuously abstinent since that time. Abstinence in FA is equivalent to A.A.’s “sobriety” and is clearly defined: weighed and measured meals with nothing in between, no flour, no sugar, and the avoidance of any individual binge foods.
Who joins FA?
FA members are people of all ages from every part of the world. FA includes people who were morbidly obese, substantially underweight, or even at a normal weight. Regardless of their size, they were tormented by cravings, dieting, bulimia, and/or an obsession with exercise.
Does the program really work?
Many FA members tried other solutions to address their problems with food, including years of diets or exercise. FA offers a long-term answer. Abstinent members find freedom from addiction and maintain healthy weights. The number of people with years of unbroken abstinence continues to grow.
The pamphlet "Food Addiction: Stories of Teens and Twenties in Recovery" is FA Conference Approved Literature.