As a weekly food addicts meeting begins in a small brick church in a yuppie Toronto neighbourhood, one woman leans to the attendee in the row beside her and confesses a forbidden indulgence.
She had a bit of cotton candy.
That’s a cardinal sin in this room, which is filled with 60 or so members of Food Addicts in Recovery Anonymous (FA). This particular congregation meets three times a week, and is one of 17 weekly meetings held in Ontario. There are four in B.C., 11 in Alberta and hundreds more in seven other countries around the world.
It’s essentially a free 90-minute weight loss sermon, sans priest or pews, that’s open to people of all faiths and food afflictions. Roughly 80 per cent of those who show up are women in their 20s to 80s.
“I drove a car into a wall because I was shoving food in my mouth … I was an accident waiting to happen. At 368 pounds, something was going to give,” Paula, a former pasta addict tells Global News before the meeting.
Her name, and that of everyone else quoted, has been changed and their faces blurred. Anonymity is the first rule of Food Addicts in Recovery Anonymous.
Since joining the not-for-profit program four years ago, Paula dropped 240 pounds and has maintained her 120-pound weight for three-and-a-half years.
The 63-year-old remembers being so big that she couldn’t even bend over to tie her shoes. She’d hide food from her husband, who came close to divorcing her. All the while, she thought she could control her world through her food.
Bingeing became exhausting. At one point she dieted herself into an anorexic clinic. She weighed only 99 pounds then.
The disorder swings both ways. Some FA members have had to gain weight, but the majority have fought compulsive overeating habits to lose it. Thousands of pounds have been shed between them, without much exercise. In fact, none is required in the program.
A 60-year-old tells us before the session that she shed — and kept off — half her weight when she joined FA at 255 pounds over four years ago.
“I pretty much tried everything. The only thing that worked for me is this program,” she says. “I can’t do this by myself.”
So what’s the secret?
The two core commandments are that sugar and flour must be completely cut from one’s diet.
When Global News asks one self-professed food addict if she misses those staples, she replies: “What I don’t miss is going to bed hating myself.”
Sugar and flour are considered as bad as heroin would be for a recovering drug addict.
That message is driven home as the 7 p.m. session gets underway. The cotton-candy-eating member doesn’t get a chance to explain her slip-up because only those with 90 or more straight days of sugar and flour abstinence are allowed to speak.
They spend 20 minutes taking turns reading parts of FA’s manifesto a.k.a. the “Big Book,” adapted from the one used by Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). The FA book claims food addicts have an “allergy” to flour and sugar.
“Food addiction is a disease of the mind, body and spirit for which there is no cure,” one person recites.
“But it can be arrested a day at a time by our adapting to a disciplined way of eating and the Twelve-Step program of FA.”
In addition to avoiding the ingredients at all costs, the rules state meals are supposed to be “weighed and measured.”
A couple of registered dietitians Global News spoke to expressed some concerns over the philosophy. Elke Sengmueller, who’s based in Toronto, argues restricting foods like carbs “inevitably causes intense preoccupation” and increases cravings for them.
Jennifer Sygo, who specializes in disordered eating at Cleveland Clinic Canada, has a hard time with the concept of “food addiction.” She sees it more as emotional eating, which many of us do to different degrees.
It becomes a problem, Sygo says, “when it starts interfering in your life.” Potential warning signs she listed include people who restrict food aren’t able to eat around others or they may have high anxiety around food.
The program’s faithful followers swear by it, regardless of what anyone says.
Turning things around
Valeria believes it saved her.
“It’s the basis of my life,” she told Global News after the session. “No money in the world combined could give me what this gives me.”
She and the other self-professed food addicts look happy, healthy and confident — nothing like their former selves. They proudly carry photos in their wallets or phones to prove it.
Valeria dedicates the next half hour recounting just how unmanageable her life got as a result of her addiction.
Her unhealthy relationship with food started when she was a child in South America. Her parents split up and her mother couldn’t afford much food. Valeria recalls how she’d stare at other kids’ food with longing.
One time, she picked up a Cheeto someone had dropped on the floor and ate it.
The lack of food in her home eventually spiralled into a full-blown eating disorder when she could finally get her hands on more of it. She says she “used food to medicate the discomfort of her fears, doubt and insecurity.” She didn’t have a lot of friends because she wouldn’t let people close to her for fear of them realizing how bad things were with her.
Her food obsession used to consume her. She barely graduated high school. At one of her first office jobs at a lodge, she stole money from co-workers’ drawers to buy and binge on food. Then she’d throw it up.
She was drawn to FA after seeing a newspaper ad while visiting her sister in the U.K. It said: “Are you having trouble controlling the way you’re eating?”
By then, Valeria had “tried it all … psychotherapy, hypnotherapy, weight loss clinics, weight-loss programs, diets, yoga, self-help books, restricting, purging, exercise, you name it, I did it.”
She figured one FA meeting couldn’t hurt and got hooked by the way her problem was framed. Rather than focus on a lack of willpower, it was explained as a “disease” of food addiction.
When she moved to Montreal shortly after, there was no FA so she went as far as to move into a nunnery in pursuit of self-improvement.
“I thought that if I were to become a nun, maybe my eating problem and all my internal issues would get solved. But they didn’t.”
In the 11 years since then, she’s come a long way. She’s earned a master’s degree at McGill, has become a successful consultant in Toronto, and maintained a 50-pound weight loss and healthy lifestyle — all of which she attributes to FA. She says it makes her way more efficient because she’s not thinking about food all the time.
“I wouldn’t be able to accomplish anything without it.”
WATCH: See how other people lost weight and kept it off
‘My mouth would hurt from eating’
Nadia also credits FA with the 60-pound weight loss that she’s been able to keep off for six years and counting.
“I’m Nadia and I’m a food addict,” the 32-year-old says once the meeting floor is opened up to others.
“I just tried so many things — spiritual groups, emotional eating groups, therapists, nutritionists, diets, exercise. None of it really worked.”
Her decision to join FA marked a major turning point in a 17-year battle with weight. It started when she was just nine years old and saw the first of what would be seven nutritionists. She was told then that she weighed as much as a 16-year-old.
At age 10, she was taken to Weight Watchers. By university, she was declared “morbidly obese” at 297 pounds.
She used to order so much food for herself that when it came time to pay at the till, she’d feel so ashamed that she’d lie and say it was for a book club.
Her school books would be covered in food smears. When she’d wake up in the morning, her “mouth would hurt from eating so many hard, crunchy things.”
Finally she came to the “scary realization” that even though she wanted to stop, she couldn’t.
Nadia hid her disorder from the outside world, and even herself. She compares it to being an outwardly functioning hoarder with a basement full of junk.
“No one knew I did all this stuff with food, like what I did when I was home alone.
“It was like, I’d invite people over and say, ‘Let’s sit in the living room. But don’t go in the basement.’ And that was kind of like me — I just didn’t go in the basement.
A network of support
Cutting out certain foods is just part of the equation. The success of FA relies heavily on a system of sponsors and network of fellow food addicts around the world.
The idea is you can call them up at any time to help you through moments of weakness — something Sygo, the registered dietitian is totally in favour of.
Those calls are seen as a form of “service” in FA and can offer members strength when life takes a turn for the worse.
That’s what the support circle provided this summer for Bev, an Alberta woman whose husband died “suddenly and unexpectedly” from a bee sting. Calls from food addicts-turned-friends were pivotal in helping her stay on the wagon.
The soon-to-be-60-year-old, who dropped in on the meeting during a visit from Alberta where she’s also a member, says it was an entirely different story when her first husband left her 20 years ago.
“The first thing I did was take the kids to a grocery store.”
“We just walked down the aisles and bought whatever we wanted. There was sugared cereals, ice cream. We bought whipping cream by the gallon and we were eating it out of bowls. It was ridiculous. But to me, that was very soothing.”
WATCH: Do you know how much sugar you’re consuming?
Now, when she needs that sense of comfort, she’ll go get a massage or have a bubble bath.
“Or I go spend time with my grandchildren. I know how to make my life sweeter now.”
Since joining FA a decade ago, Bev lost and kept off 100 pounds.
“I’m a different person today than I was 10 years ago.”
If she travels to a place that doesn’t have an FA chapter, she’ll go to an AA meeting which she says has a similar format. At home in Lacombe, she attends FA sessions twice weekly.
“People should just try it,” she says, “and see where it leads you.”