Integrating 12-Step Programs into ED Recovery

What is addiction? Can people be addicted to certain food substances and/or eating behaviors, including not eating?

Addiction can be defined as an obsessive-compulsive behavior that a person continues despite serious physical, emotional, social and spiritual consequences. Denial and minimization of the consequences are common among those suffering with an addiction to food, exercise, starving, purging or other attempts to control their bodies. People suffering from food addiction or compulsive under/overeating are powerless over binging, starving, over exercising, purging, etc. Unmanageability is a hallmark of the disease of addiction and occurs once the disease is progressed to a point where a person cannot recover without outside help (no more than a person with type I diabetes mellitus can have normal blood sugar without surrendering to take the insulin prescribed by her doctor!).

What is a recovery model? What is Overeater’s Anonymous?

The recovery model is a treatment approach that helps people learn and apply the practice of 12-step principles to heal their toxic relationship with food and body. The 12 steps and 12 traditions were first created in Alcoholics Anonymous, and 12-step participation has become a mainstay in the treatment and recovery of hundreds and thousands of people who suffered from alcoholism.

“Overeaters Anonymous offers a program of recovery from compulsive eating using the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions of OA. Worldwide meetings and other tools provide a fellowship of experience, strength and hope where members respect one another’s anonymity. OA charges no dues or fees; it is self-supporting through member contributions.”

“OA is not just about weight loss, gain or maintenance; or obesity or diets. It addresses physical, emotional and spiritual well-being. It is not a religious organization and does not promote any particular diet. Overeaters Anonymous welcomes anyone who wants to stop eating compulsively.”

What if I don’t overeat? Can I go to OA if I am anorexic or bulimic?

Not to worry…the only requirement for membership is a desire to stop eating compulsively. For people with anorexia, eating compulsively can take many forms: food rules, calorie counting, rules around not eating, using diet pills or laxatives, and over exercising. For people with bulimia, compulsive eating includes binging and purging through vomiting, laxative/diet pill abuse, binging and over exercising, and periods of restricting food intake. All are welcome at OA. There are even meetings with a special focus on anorexia and bulimia within OA.

How is OA different from say a Weight Watchers Program or an ANAD support group?

The focus of OA is on recovery—physically, emotionally and spiritually. Unlike other support groups, OA is unique in that there are no membership dues or fees, there are no “musts”, and most importantly there is a program of recovery outlined in the 12 steps which empowers people to recover for the rest of their lives. In recovery, OA members gain freedom from the obsession with food, weight, and/or body concerns. In doing so, they come to live happy, joyous, and abundant lives on a daily basis. This is a solution that’s been proven effective in arresting the illness for hundreds and thousands of people. Many people in recovery become “Weller than the well.”

Will I have to count calories or weigh in?  I’ve heard it is super strict.

Absolutely not. You don’t have to do anything in OA. Take what you like and leave all the rest. OA’s steps are merely a suggested program of recovery. There are no rules. There are no absolutes. Each member develops her own program of recovery and has her own unique fingerprint of recovery! Each member is free to choose a sponsor (or multiple sponsors) who has what she wants to help her work through the steps. If you want a strict program, you can find that in OA. If you want a flexible program, you can find that too in OA. The program is for you.

What do I do to become a member?

The only requirement for membership in OA is a desire to stop eating compulsively.  The first step is to find a nearby meeting from the online directory and to go to it.  You could also try a phone or online meeting.

What is an OA meeting like? Will I have to talk?

“Meetings are gatherings of two or more compulsive eaters who come together to share their personal experience and the strength and hope OA has given them.” You only speak at an OA meeting if you want to. No one will force you to speak.

I’ve heard people talk about a “higher power.”   What is that and how does it help?  I’m not religious- how would this work for me?

The most fundamental definition of a “higher power” is what you turn to for comfort and support. Most people with an active eating disorder turn to food, binging, purging, starving, over-exercise, the scale, diet pills and/or laxatives as a higher power. In OA people learn to turn to a loving and life-giving higher power rather than the higher power of their disease, which wreaks havoc on their lives and in many cases kills them. Each person decides what their loving higher power looks like—a relationship with a sponsor, therapist, or OA group is the beginning for most people. Some people call their higher power God. Some people don’t. OA is a spiritual program, not affiliated with any organized religion. Members are free to participate or not in any religion they choose to outside of OA.

How long does it take to finish the program?

Compulsive overeaters are never cured of their food addiction, so there is no graduation or finish date in OA. Daily application of the twelve steps to all aspects of one’s life results in a daily reprieve from even the worst addictive food behaviors.

Where can I find a meeting?

Go to to find an OA meeting closest to you as well as many phone and online meetings.  Go to for further information.


Kim Dennis, MD
Medical Director
Timberline Knolls