Eating Disorder Recovery And The 12 Steps: Step Zero, Putting Down The Food

While “Step Zero” is not an official step in the Twelve Step Program of Alcoholics Anonymous, many members recovering from compulsive overeating and other food related disorders recognize Step Zero as a necessary and important practical milestone in beginning recovery.

What is Step Zero? Among those recovering from eating disorders, Step Zero is “putting down the food.” The rationale is that a person cannot begin to work the steps and recover if they are still abusing food. Abuse of food can include any and all behaviors associated with anorexia, bulimia, binging, compulsive overeating, orthorexia, etc.

How do you practice Step Zero? Disordered eaters are often perplexed about the best way to control a substance that must be confronted every day. In the case of the alcoholic or drug addict, recovery will necessarily require abstinence from the offending substance. Alcoholics in recovery talk about “corking the bottle.” But for obvious reasons this approach won’t work for eating disorders. We must eat to live and therefore cannot abstain from the offensive substance.

The challenge, then, is to find a way to abstain from the behaviors that are disordered and maladaptive and that cause such angst and turmoil in the life of the sufferer. Bingers must stop binging, purgers stop purging, and anorexics must learn a way to eat again. But an addict or disordered eater should never be expected to relieve themselves of behaviors that they legitimately cannot help. To ask an anorexic to figure out how to eat normally and then to do it is like asking a man with no legs to get up and walk; it’s not only insensitive, it’s absurd.

Disordered eaters can begin to leave behind their maladaptive behaviors and patterns with the help of a comprehensive food plan and eating schedule. Designed with the help of a professional, the individual “puts down” the control and reign of food in her life. Though she may not be able to determine and follow healthy patterns on her own, she can follow a plan set out before her. With guidance and accountability she can begin to eliminate her addict behaviors around food.

Why is there a need for a Step Zero? In order for the sufferer to have the mental and emotional clarity to begin working and applying the steps, food has to get out of the way.
“Putting down the food” is not the end of the battle, indeed it is only the beginning, but the mind and body will quickly respond.

Eating disorders are not simply a physical condition-they have a powerful grip on the entire person. Recovery will require years of self-reflection and concentrated efforts in personal and spiritual development, but this can never happen if the individual is still running to the toilet after a meal or neglecting to intake more than 500 calories a day. When the mind is consumed with keeping up the disordered behavior, time and effort cannot be directed towards personal development and recovery.

Practical advice for practicing Step Zero. If you or someone close to you is desperate for relief and recovery from an eating disorder, immediately become involved with Overeater’s Anonymous. If more intense treatment is required, seek out inpatient or outpatient recovery programs. Within a formal recovery program, patients will typically meet with a nutritionist or be put on a specialized food plan. This completely satisfies the Step Zero suggestion. The patient can begin to work the food plan with the support of the treatment program and others in recovery.

For a compulsive or disordered eater who is not planning to enter a treatment program, it will still be necessary to have the support of a community such as Overeater’s Anonymous. A food plan is not the sole answer to recovery. It is merely the key that opens the door to the Twelve Steps. Food addiction, in actuality, is very little about food. That is only a symptom. The behaviors and beliefs that have caused and perpetuated the disorder must be addressed through the full program.

Most addicts will also find that they cannot find the strength to follow their food plan or Step Zero without the support of a group and the growth that the actual program provides. Step Zero is worked in conjunction with the other steps and tools of the program, not in isolation from it. Separated from the steps, tools, and support of the program, Step Zero is one more diet, one more method of torture. Recovery is yet to come-put the food down, work the steps.

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