Treatment Facilities for Compulsive Overeating: Saints vs. Sinners

There is more than one reason why I am obese.  Included among those reasons are an abusive relationship with food and major apprehension about exercise.

Certainly, I would love to wave the proverbial magic wand and become a person with a psychologically healthier approach to eating and a passionate love of walking, running, cycling, any sportive thing that contributes to my wellbeing.

In fact, I’m even willing to forego the magic wand and actually work for these changes.

But admittedly, I need some serious help.  I consider myself an exceptionally challenging case.  For me, food and sedentary behavior provide a psychological sense of safety.  Venturing beyond them equals pure terror.

I recently read “Change or Die” by Alan Deutschman, and it got me thinking about the changes I need to make, and how colossally unsuccessful I’ve been at doing so my entire adult life.

Deutschman’s book explores the key common elements behind successful examples of permanent change.  Namely, those elements are:  a) having an inspiring individual to look up to, who believes you can succeed; b) being part of a supportive community of others facing similar challenges; and c) regular practice of one’s newly adopted behaviors.

Deutschman’s case studies include a group of heart patients who successfully changed their once-deadly lifestyles; ex-cons who defied the odds and didn’t return to prison, morphing into upstanding, responsible citizens; and Alcoholics Anonymous.

So I started thinking of how I could apply Deutschman’s outline to my eating disorder and my aversion to exercise.  Every now and then I entertain the fantasy of locking myself away somewhere for several months, like at a retreat or in-patient treatment center for compulsive overeating disorder, where I just can’t help but be helped.  And such places do offer all of Alan Deutschman’s ingredients for permanent change.

So I started poking around on the web, looking at programs and facilities, and I discovered there are essentially two types of places to which one can flee in desperation: true recovery programs, and glorified fat camps.

If you’ve ever considered “going away somewhere” to address your own compulsive overeating, I urge you to pay close attention to the language a prospective treatment facility uses in its literature and on its web site.

There are many places you or I can go to “relearn” how to eat, and be gently encouraged into physical activity.  Let’s look at two:

The Rader Programs treatment for compulsive overeating includes individual counseling, nutritional counseling, an exercise program and a body image group.  Their web site sagely states:

“Over 80% of individuals who develop an eating disorder began their dysfunctional relationship with food through dieting.  At Rader Programs we realize that there is so much more to an individual than just what they weigh.  One of our main goals of treatment is to help our clients realize this fact for themselves…Many individuals who have come through our program have chosen to smash their scales and in the process have freed themselves from having their emotions tied to a number that has nothing at all to do with who they really are.”

Then there’s Green Mountain at Fox Run, whose home page on the web opens with the following text:

“Imagine a life free of weight worries…No more struggling to stop overeating, binge eating or compulsive eating.  No more restrictive diets or other weight loss programs that don’t work.  No more tormenting yourself with the scale.  No more health spa, weight loss spa, fat farm or boot camp…We offer a practical, livable healthy lifestyle approach with which, for the past three decades, women have discovered how to lose weight and keep it off (all emphasis mine).”

Green Mountain’s customers can choose to engage in a variety of workshops and activities during any given day of their stay, from “Supermarket Savvy and Food Labeling” and “Why 1200 Calorie or Less Diets Make You Fat” (and for heaven’s sake, chuckle chuckle, we know you don’t want to be that), to “Kickboxing” and “Buns, Thighs and Abs”.

At some places, like Rader, you’ll receive treatment for the root issues.

At others, you may engage in some similar activities, but not without being bombarded by something else that’s completely beside the point (well, beside my point, anyway): the goal of weight loss and all its accompanying fanfare.

For those of you who read my work regularly, you know I’m completely opposed to gauging one’s health or level of fitness by one’s body weight.  For most people, I just don’t think there’s a sensible correlation.

If I checked myself into a facility where meals were served and supervised and I was forced to eat mindfully and healthfully, and furthermore, where I took part in regular physical activity, I’m almost positive I would lose weight.  Sure I would!  And if I took those grand new habits home with me and sustained them for many months, even years, I’m sure I’d lose so much weight, I might not even qualify as “fat” anymore.

And that would be just fine.  But the weight loss is not the point.  It’s not my point in going to a place that treats compulsive overeaters.  Weight loss as a “side effect” of conquering my issues around food-abuse and exercise phobia is perfectly acceptable.

But I think any organization that claims to address compulsive overeating and promotes weight loss as part of its program is, in my opinion, guilty of a form of malpractice.  Regardless of all its good intentions, any such organization is woefully misguided.

Why?  Because in many cases of compulsive overeating, the “diet mentality” that inevitably comes with any effort to purposely lose weight has, at some point in the sufferer’s past, been a big psychological contributor to the disorder itself.  The diet mentality has helped to create the disorder.

So when a woman checks herself into a facility that suggests it will free her from compulsive overeating, yet sends her pro-weight loss messages – actually brags about how it’s going to help her achieve weight loss – is negating its work on the disorder.  Two steps forward, three steps back.

The diet mentality includes (but is not limited to) an illogical dependency on the scale to indicate one’s progress towards health, fitness, and almost always and most illogically, happiness.

Many of us know what it’s like to be feeling just fine, until we step on the scale.  If the number disappoints us — because we haven’t achieved or maintained a specific weight, a so-called “right” weight or “ideal” weight — suddenly we feel like a walking turd.  Worthless, hopeless, a failure.  Way too many of us have given the scale that power.

Compulsive overeaters often turn to food for comfort from feelings of worthlessness, hopelessness, failure.  Therefore, the scale drives them to further abuse food.

Besides, why be dependent on the scale to determine your success?

If we can enjoy vibrant health within a wide spectrum of body weight, why is a focus on one’s weight necessary?  If we can achieve enviable levels of bodily fitness, like strength and stamina, regardless of our weight, what’s weight loss got to do with…anything?

Besides, think about it.  Bundling the promise of weight loss in with treatment for compulsive overeating disorder is kind of like trying to get your children to stop hitting each other by spanking them.

The focus on weight loss in our society – nay, the obsession with it – has knocked offline the hearts and minds of girls and women for too long.

Seldom is healthful eating promoted as being good for you, without the additional tag of the potential for weight loss.   Exercise is primarily sold to women as a weight loss tool.  Anything else – including longevity — is a “fringe” benefit.

Would weight loss benefit many people?  Absolutely.  But many people would achieve those same benefits long before reaching the “goal weight” prescribed for them by an irrelevant government-issued height and weight chart, or a dingbat in a white coat at Jenny Craig.

But the saddest part is, many of those same people wouldn’t consider the efforts of eating well and working out worthwhile if they couldn’t come out at the end looking exactly like Hollywo0od’s current skeletal it-girl.  Without that promise, what’s the point?

But that promise is dangled like a bejeweled carrot before us every day, shoved, shoved, shoved down our throats through advertising and pandering editors and producers, so that scarcely anyone wants anything else.

No wonder the instances of eating disorders have skyrocketed in recent years.

But when we’ve come to the end of our ropes and admit that we’re losing the game, and fall to our knees on the doorsteps of facilities whose mission is to cure us of the insanity – sometimes, we’re given more of the same.

We’re asked to continue praying to the gods of the scale.  People go to these facilities often expecting to be “deprogrammed” of everything that’s helped create their disorder, only to find they’re walking into the heart of the cult.

If you’re looking for real help with compulsive overeating, be mindful of what an institution’s position is on The Scale.  Do they have any loyalty to it whatsoever?  If so, that’s a clear indicator of how deeply they don’t get it.  Of just how ill-equipped they really are to help the people who fork over thousands of dollars to be served and saved.  You might as well be asking the Marlboro Man to help you quit smoking.

And don’t let the tender, seemingly progressive, “we understand you” web copy fool you.  Pay attention to the substance, not the sizzle. weight lost.

So, will I be shipping off to a more sensible institution, like Rader or one of its philosophical peers?

I wish!  And oh, how I’d love to document the experience, too, either in my book or my blog.  However, lack of funds doesn’t permit.  And my insurance certainly won’t pay for it.

But that’s a whoooole other blog, for another day.  Stay tuned.

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