Dr. Pretlow sees two main issues in dealing with the childhood obesity epidemic. To fight it, we need to:
1) Get obese kids unaddicted to highly palatable foods; and
2) Prevent healthy kids from becoming addicted to start with.
We have been looking at the problem of food addiction and the possibilities of social networking as a treatment modality, administered not by professionals but by peers. We are interested mainly in online self-help groups, but, of course, the prototypical example for them all is Alcoholics Anonymous, whose meetings occur in what the cyberpunks called “meatspace.”
Certain kinds of social networking are very effective. Few experiences are more powerful than face-to-face meetings with people to whom you have pledged to hold yourself accountable. In AA and similar groups, to be present and accounted for is not only a big part of the program, it is the program. In real life (IRL), there is good practical common sense in everyday meetings. A person who is at a meeting, or traveling to or from a meeting, is probably not drinking during any of those moments.
Then, there is the sweat-equity factor. Psychiatrists say it is important for them to charge a hefty fee, because on some level the patient feels that anything not paid for is worthless. AA meetings are free, but the person “pays” for the help received, by taking the trouble to show up. If people suffering from addiction are able to pay, residential programs make it even more possible for them to separate from their habits.
The recent meltdown experienced by actor Charlie Sheen included badmouthing AA, which inspired two writers, Jeannine Stein (Los Angeles Times) and Mary Forgione (Tribune Health) to look into the allegations of failure. They asked “celebrity rehab” specialist Dr. Drew Pinsky, who said,
He’s got a point. Their success rates aren’t that great. But the fact is, it does work when people do it.
The journalists don’t stop there, but go on to quote several studies and several other doctors, including addiction psychiatrist Dr. David Sack, of Promises Treatment Centers:
AA is a self-help support group, it wasn’t designed as a treatment. One of the core features of AA is getting a sponsor, a peer who has had more time in recovery and can teach you about the AA approach to addiction. In studies that have looked at AA, having a sponsor significantly improves the likelihood of long-term abstinence.
But here is the juicy part that will be mentioned again as we explore social networking and obesity. Dr. Sack says,
Another core value is service to others, something that helps people reclaim their self-esteem. Addicts often feel sub-human, and this helps them restore their sense of self-worth and become part of the human family through that process.
Over the years, many offshoots have grown from the AA blueprint, most notably for narcotics addiction, and now there are groups for food addicts. It’s okay to say that because it’s what they call themselves.
The Food Addiction Institute offers a comprehensive resource page that gives contact information for Compulsive Eaters Anonymous, Food Addicts Anonymous, GreySheeters Anonymous, Food Addicts in Recovery Anonymous, and Recovery from Food Addiction, Inc. They also note that Overeaters Anonymous is “by far the oldest, largest and most diverse food-related 12 step fellowship.”
The page describes these groups:
This is where one finds the most concentrated number of food addicts actively working on their own recovery, a number of useful publications, and regular support meetings. The 12 Step fellowships look at food addiction as a physical, emotional and spiritual disease with an emphasis on each person developing their own understanding of spirituality; these programs are not religious so that all individuals — whether religious, agnostic or atheist — can adapt them to their own beliefs.
On this page, we also find the 12 steps, as they have been adapted by Overeaters Anonymous. Other groups are specifically Christian, which some people object to. In Overweight: What Kids Say, Dr. Pretlow provides a 12-step strategy (page 293) for the young that is not religion-based.
The Huffington Post writer known as “A Compulsive Eater,” who believes that binge eating should be recognized as a psychiatric disorder, found salvation in the 12 steps:
I went from an angry, isolated, depressed person to a joyful and serene individual who prizes service above all else. The program asks you to believe in a higher power–but one of your own choosing… As long as you believe in it, you’ll be ok. … We take actions, we make inventories, we become honest, we pray and our lives change dramatically… we are vastly more equipped to handle the problems that come our way because we have the support of our fellows, the guidance of a sponsor, the love of a higher power and the immense gratitude that come with freedom from an addiction.
Your responses and feedback are welcome!
Source: “Charlie Sheen claims AA has a 5% success rate — is he right?,” LA Times, 03/03/11
Source: “Recommended Resources,” Food Addiction Institute
Source: “Why Kirstie Alley and the Biggest Losers Will Gain the Weight Back,” The Huffington Post, 05/12/10
Image (modified) by Alberto Mari, used under its Creative Commons license.