So you want to be a food addiction counselor? Good luck!
Not long ago I had a conversation with a reporter who wanted to know where a food addict could go for help. Her article carried the sad but unfortunately accurate headline: “Little help for those with food addictions.” She wrote, “Science is emerging showing that people can suffer food addictions, but there is still little help available for them.”
I told this writer that referring people to 12-step fellowships for compulsive overeaters (Overeaters Anonymous) or food addicts (Food Addicts Anonymous) was “the best advice I’ve got today,” and that therapists who understand and treat food addiction are rare.
The scarcity of qualified food addiction counselors borders on criminal, given how rampant the disease has become. Is it any surprise, though, that medical schools and substance abuse counseling programs have virtually no interest in training food addiction therapists, given the amount of push back from both the medical community and the food industry against accepting food addiction as a disease?
Heck, most medical schools don’t even include the minimum recommended number of study hours in nutrition in their curriculum. As a recent research survey concluded, “Many U.S. medical schools still fail to prepare future physicians for everyday nutrition challenges.” As for the processed food industry, well, I’ll leave that discussion for another day.
First Things First
What to do then, if you want to join the society of specialists working with food addicts trying to recover? Let’s start with three recommendations, based on recent discussions I have had with colleagues in the field.
#1. Make sure that whatever educational path you travel, you are among educators or mentors who accept that there even is such a thing as addictive eating. Many programs will espouse helping food addicts learn “how to eat all foods in moderation.” Don’t believe them. As Joan Ifland, author of Sugars and Flours: How They Make Us Crazy, Sick and Fat, likes to say, “Would we ever say to a heroin addict, ‘In a few years you’ll be able to shoot up again?’”
Rhona Epstein, author of Food Triggers and a recovered food addict with a doctorate in clinical psychology, is equally blunt. “Even people who say they get it, don’t,” she says. “Some programs will say they support abstinence but they don’t understand the severity of the impact of one bite or one cookie.”
So unless all you care about is making money, you should avoid options which discourage abstinence from particular foods and promise that flour, sugar, will eventually be permissible. You will often find such claims made from food addiction coaches, nutritionists, dieticians and personal trainers.
#2. Go for a master’s degree in a relevant field, e.g. psychology, social work or mental health and then specialize in food addiction. This will be critical should you ever want to be employed in the field. Most treatment centers for food addicts, including Shades of Hope in Buffalo Gap, Texas, Turning Point of Tampa in Florida and Renascent in Toronto, Canada, look for this credential in all of their job applicants.
“We require a degree or a certification [in mental health],” says Carrie Willey, clinical director at Shades of Hope. Robin Piper, who holds a similar position at Turning Point, agrees. “The first thing that we would require is a masters degree in counseling,” she says. Piper adds an important dimension, however, that should also be on your radar screen, “We look for experience in the modality that we use, which is 12-step and abstinence-based.”
#3. Get as much hands-on experience as you can with recovering food addicts. Line up an internship at one of the few treatment centers that still exist, or, at minimum, attend a variety of food-related, 12-step fellowships. (There are at least nine of these and I explain them individually at this link on my website.)
Phil Werdell, probably the most active professional in the food addiction field and my co-author for Food Junkies, worked in the early 1990s at one of the first treatment centers for food addiction, the now-defunct Glenbeigh Psychiatric Hospital in Tampa, Florida. Although his academic background is in education, he knows food addiction from the inside out and has been sugar- and flour-free himself for nearly three decades.
“In the early days at Glenbeigh,” Werdell says, “staff — even non-food addicts — had to have two years of back-to-back abstinence.” His Iceland protégé and colleague, Esther Helga Gudmundsdottir, puts it this way: “The best food addiction counselors will most likely be recovering food addicts just as sober alcoholics turn out to be the best counselors for alcoholics.”
After Glenbeigh closed its doors, Werdell founded ACORN Food Dependency Recovery Services and he now offers a three-year professional training program for would-be food addiction counselors. More about that later.
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