What Is Abstinence?

Note: This article was written in March 1992, after we had submitted our manuscript for the Addictionary, but well before it was published.

Abstinence from compulsive eating — what is it? Confusion begins with the use of the term abstinence itself. People think of total abstinence from alcohol and other drugs, which does not seem to apply to food. In fact, when anorexics abstain from food they are closest to death from their eating disorder.

Overeaters Anonymous (OA) suggests abstaining from compulsive overeating, but that is certainly much more difficult to define than abstinence from alcohol. In fact, OA has suffered for years with some criticizing that it has not defined abstinence, and others that OA has no business defining abstinence at all.

The question of abstinence from compulsive eating can be viewed in the light of four questions: when, what, how much, and whose power.

WHEN to eat?

For most people, this is the easiest of the four questions. Three times a day (or up to about six, if there is too much time between meals or you have medical problems that require smaller, more frequent meals) is a simple solution that fits with most of our culture’s expectations.

Between-meals abstinence A real freedom for most compulsive eaters comes from abstinence from eating between meals. By confining eating to a certain number of meals, you gain freedom from almost continuous obsession about whether you should eat now, and if so what and how much. You will probably allow a reasonable amount of low-calorie beverages between meals, to serve a social function as well as to quench thirst.

Six minutes a day A friend of ours, who is recovering in both AA and 0A, is frequently asked to explain his OA abstinence to his AA friends. He says that it takes him an average of two minutes before each meal to determine what a moderate meal is. This is true whether he is ordering from a menu or selecting from a buffet or bowls on the table at home. Once he has decided that, with the help of his Higher Power, he doesn’t take seconds, so he can relax and eat his meal like a regular human being.

He eats only three meals a day, so he says his alcoholism is different from his food addiction only six minutes a day — the other 23 hours and 54 minutes they are exactly the same. If he is offered anything, from cookies to carrot sticks, he “just says no” the same way he would if he were offered champagne or beer.

WHAT to eat?

Recovering food addicts need basic information about nutrition, including a healthy balance between carbohydrates, protein, and fats. There is so much “myth-information” like “carbohydrates are fattening” that reliable, sane, nutritional instruction is essential in recovery.

Another factor you should consider in reaching your own definition of abstinence is which, if any, foods have a significant mood-altering effect for you, and what amounts of those foods are needed to produce an unusual mood change.

The most common food mentioned in this respect is sugar. Many therapists who work with food addiction believe that their clients are sensitive to high concentrations of sugar, and perhaps other refined carbohydrates (like white flour). Actually, it is far more common for food addicts to binge on sweet fats and salty fats than sugar without fats, but few counselors who use a food addiction model would recommend that their clients eat as much sugar as they might like.

Sugar = alcohol?

There is a strange phenomenon in food addiction that can be confirmed by almost any dietitian. To oversimplify the problem and draw a direct parallel between sugar and alcohol, many food addicts (and even therapists who should know better) believe it is both possible and practical to abstain from sugar entirely. But it would be hard to imagine a healthy, varied food plan that does not include small amounts of various sugars. Half a cantaloupe, for example, contains 14.4 grams of sucrose (table sugar), 3.2 grams of glucose, and 4.8 grams of fructose. Orange juice has more nutrients, but about the same amount of sugar as an ordinary (non-diet) cola drink. The average carrot has about 2.6 grams of sucrose, and a half cup of green peas has about 3.8 grams.

It should be clear that if there is a problem with any kind of sugar, it must be in the high concentrations we see, in desserts and disguised desserts. A breakfast bar, for example, may have 12.5 grams of sucrose and 5.3 grams of other sugars. A 3/4 cup serving of sugar & honey coated breakfast wheat puffs may include over a tablespoon of sugar.

Many food addicts have one or two very easily identifiable binge foods, which might need to be excluded from a food plan. Popcorn is a good example — a whole grain nutritious food that unfortunately signals snacks and loads of butter to many food addicts. Others have no trouble with it plain at a meal or pressed into a rice cake shape.

Fats and exercise

The key to weight management is deceptively simple: adjust your intake of fats according to whether you need to lose weight, stay the same, or gain weight. Then work up (or down) to a moderate exercise program that includes about 3O minutes a day of aerobic activity.

Fats affect your weight far more than protein or carbohydrates. Adult women who need to lose weight should lower their fat intake to 20-40 grams a day. Men and teens should be about 30-60 grams a day. This should allow you to lose a few pounds a month. More than that is unsafe. Avoid eating too much protein. Most protein sources contain lots of fat, and excess protein is likely to be changed to fat. Finally, if fats are low and protein is reasonable, food addicts are capable of eating too much carbohydrates, but it is not nearly as likely as overdoing fat and protein.

Note that this information works for anorexics, too. It is almost impossible for an anorexic to gain weight while eating a lowfat diet. Oils high in monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, like olive oil, nuts, and most vegetable oils, should be added to produce a very slow gain, while moderate anaerobic (muscle toning) exercise can help rebuild a healthy body.

Exercise (or physical activity) is very important for all food addicts. It keeps your metabolism going and tells your body there is no famine outside, so it doesn’t have to conserve fat. Aerobic activity is best for weight loss, because it burns more fat than carbohydrate. If you’re doing it right, you should be able to talk but not sing.

Abstinence from alcohol

Even if you do not identify yourself as an alcoholic, we suggest that you avoid alcohol in your abstinence. There are several reasons for this. First, there is such a tendency for addiction to spread from one area of life to another that drinking does not seem worth the risk for a food addict. Also, alcohol is a powerful mood-altering drug (that’s why it is used), and it will be much more difficult to maintain good judgment about food abstinence and other choices if you have been drinking.

HOW MUCH to eat?

Moderate is the key word for how much. Energy needs and weight management determine how much carbohydrate and fat, for example. Whether written or not, we believe that everyone has some kind of food plan that tells them how much to eat. Some are just saner than others.

Rigid diet - abstinence

You may know people who define their abstinence as exact, adherence to a particular rigid diet (which they may call a “food plan” as if that somehow makes a difference). This usually strengthens the diet mentality that is a large part of the mental aspect of food addiction, and it is also a set-up for failure. Your food plan should be a guide for helping to balance your recovery.

Individualized abstinence

There are so many differences in body weight, metabolism, nutritional needs, cultural and family heritage, food allergies, personality, lifestyle, and even food tastes, that a “one size fits all” food plan is just plain silly. It is easy for alcoholics in AA to agree that alcoholics should not drink, but try to get them to agree on whether alcoholics should be around friends who drink, should dance in lounges, should cook with wine, should watch their consumption of sugar, should refrain from smoking, or anything else that treads on their decisions about their lifestyle.

We believe that no one knows enough about nutrition or the precise mechanics of food addiction to say that you can or cannot do this or that. What seems necessary is honesty with yourself and others, an open mind, and a willingness to allow a Higher Power to help you with moderation and balance in your life.


Whatever foods you eliminate or try to avoid, abstinence should include freedom from bingeing and purging, including starving and excessive exercise. The goal is moderation, balance, and freedom from obsession. A bulimic with food poisoning may vomit-this is not a break of abstinence if she or he is really sick. Likewise, many laxative bulimics may need the “prescribed” use of laxatives until the elimination system starts working again.

Whose Power?

Finally, whatever your food plan or your definition of abstinence, the most critical question, and the one the Twelve Steps were written about, is whose power are you using for recovery. Food addicts, almostby definition, have not been able to control their eating, and no checklist or set of guidelines will enable that control. The physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual aspects of the disease and its recovery require the intervention of a Higher Power — some power that can succeed where all others have failed.

— Jan R. Wilson, 10 March 1992

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