Still, it's all too real for some people. "It happens all the time," says a 24-year-old Denver woman I'll call Donna, a member of the local chapter of Food Addicts in Recovery Anonymous. "I would call someone and tell them, 'I'm thinking about food, and I have to get it out of my system.'"
Now marking its first full year of existence, the Denver chapter of FA is part of a global network of roughly 2,000 men and women for whom the sustenance of life can be deadly. FA was originally part of the now-thirty-year-old Overeaters Anonymous; it split off into its own group five years ago. The outfit is headquartered in Malden, Massachusetts (www.foodaddicts.org). Its goal is simple: "To keep people from hurting themselves with food."
Unlike typical weight-loss gatherings, FA meetings don't involve weigh-ins or discussions of diets. Instead, FA members apply the twelve-step principles of Alcoholics Anonymous to food. They admit to having an addiction to food and being powerless to control it; they also seek the help of a "higher power" to shirk eating habits that give a darker meaning to the term "foodie."
Like AA, FA has meetings throughout the week. (The Denver chapter meets every Wednesday night and Saturday morning at St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church, 3096 South Sheridan Boulevard; call 303-806-8154 for details.) Members also have designated sponsors with whom they set up an agreed-upon menu of daily, weighed and measured meals. They commit to eating those meals and only those meals, with no snacks in between. The fare includes reasonable portions of basic foods but avoids what FA members deem the biggest threats to controlled eating: refined sugars and flours.
"I'm addicted to flour and sugar just like an alcoholic is addicted to alcohol," Donna says. "And I need help with it. By taking it out of my diet, I don't obsess over it anymore."
Donna says binge eating fueled her low self-esteem and depression, leading to failed relationships with family and friends, and causing her to drop out of two colleges and a good portion of life. "I was miserable," she says. "I'd cry myself to sleep with a bag of chips in my hands pretty often. Food was my everything: my best friend, my lover, my parents. I thought it was comforting me while I tried to fill this big hole inside of me. But it wasn't doing that."
Fen-Phen, the Atkins diet and various other efforts also failed her. "I tried Slim-Fast and ended up having the milkshakes with my meals," Donna says.
What worked was FA. She embraced FA's philosophy two years ago and joined the local chapter when it started up last year. Instead of constant eating, Donna's daily routine now includes morning prayers, followed by a call to her sponsor and three calls to members of her support group. She also weighs out her meals for the day, reads pages of the AA Big Book and some FA literature, and sets aside thirty minutes of meditation to connect with her spiritual counselor. Before bed, she invests in a second session of prayer on her knees and gives thanks for another day of controlled eating. "If I want to stay alive, I've got to do it," Donna says.
Nancy, a Colorado businesswoman, employs similar lifesaving measures. Now middle-aged, she'd dealt with years of diets, losing and gaining back as much as thirty pounds at a time. She joined FA after seeing how it benefited a friend. "My problems had to do with willpower and kind of grazing," she says. "I was feeling bad about myself; it was getting to me. I felt I had to do something."
Her first FA step -- admitting she was unable to control her eating -- "was a very powerful spiritual experience, a very cleansing thing." Putting the bite on her grazing habits was a bigger step. "It's a difficult thing for a food addict to do what you say you're going to do and not eat between meals," Nancy says.
An earthly support group and a loftier ally over her shoulder made it easier. "I don't have to feel that I'm doing this alone anymore," she adds. "There is a higher power that will take care of this. And I get support with sponsors and camaraderie in a group with the same problems I have."
Thanks to FA, Nancy says she's found a long-term solution to her weight troubles. "My weight's where I want it, and I'm much more effective in my business," she notes. "Because I've found the answers to things in something I can do for the rest of my life. I have more energy, and people are telling me I look younger."
Best of all, "I'm free," she says. "Life is less of a struggle."
Donna has enjoyed a similar shift, in addition to stripping sixty pounds from her 5'9" frame. "Life happens, and I'm able to deal with it without stuffing something in my face," she says. "On a daily basis, all I would think about is food. Now I don't have to." She's recently graduated from college, patched things up with her father and landed a job -- developments she credits to peace of mind through FA. "I love myself now, and I can be who I am," she says. "My life is completely turned around for the better."