Group battles compulsive eating disorder


Editor’s note: the names of the women quoted in this story were changed to protect their identities as their group meets under condition of anonymity.

“Hello. My name is Susan, and I am a compulsive overeater.”

Susan, a 45-year-old woman, has attended Overeaters Anonymous meetings since June 2002.

Members of OA begin their sharing session of the meetings with the same statement, admitting to the group – and themselves – they are a compulsive eater.

“There is a saying in OA, that it’s a simple program,” Susan said. “It may not be easy, but it’s simple, and that’s basically what it takes to (recover).”

Susan said the only requirement for membership is a desire to stop eating compulsively.

According to OA literature, the group “believes that compulsive overeating is an illness – a progressive illness – which cannot be cured but which, like many other illnesses, can be arrested.”

Susan said she has attended OA meetings in different towns and recently helped revive the Manhattan group.

The Manhattan chapter meets every other week but is making a transition to weekly meetings. The group is not religiously based, she said, but it is spiritual.

Six members make up the core of the Manhattan group, and they are men and women who range in age from their late 20s to 60s, Susan said.

“People come when they have hit the bottom,” she said. “Something has finally happened, and they have said ‘I can’t do this. I need some help.'”

Each meeting has a traditional format that includes reading a serenity prayer and reviewing the 12 steps and 12 traditions of OA.

“It just kind of reminds everybody of what it is that works,” Susan said.

Step one of the program is admitting to being powerless over food, Susan said, and admitting that one’s life has become unmanageable.

There are different formats the group can follow for the rest of the meeting, including a sharing session and a book study, Susan said.

According to the OA Web site,, the group has no dues or fees for membership and is anonymous to allow the fellowship to govern itself through principles rather than personalities.

Susan said there are a variety of eating plans suggested through OA literature, but members eat different foods based on their needs.

“Nobody in OA is going to say you have to eat such-and-such meals,” she said.

She said members look at their eating history and see if there are any types of foods that trigger overeating.

“There’s no specific diet, and it is going to be different for everybody,” Susan said. “Some people have certain substances or foods they have to stay away from, just like alcoholics have to stay away from alcohol.”

Linda, a 53-year-old woman, has attended the Manhattan OA meetings for three weeks.

“I’ve always known that if I eat sugar, it doesn’t affect me the way that it does other people,” Linda said. “It makes me hungrier for more. One piece of candy and I feel like I’m starving.”

Linda said she has struggled with eating disorders most of her life and has tried many different weight-loss plans.

But whenever she stopped one of the plans, she always regained most of the weight.

“But now I’m back on track, and I’m really glad to have found this group,” she said. “This time, I don’t obsess about food. I know what I need to stay away from.

“I want to eat healthy, but I don’t think about it.”

Susan said she has tried several weight-loss plans through the years, but nothing worked for her. She later heard about the OA 12-step program and located a meeting through the OA Web site.

“When I walked in, I felt at home,” she said. “I heard people talk about food in a way that I could understand.

“As long I could remember, people said ‘well, just push your self away from the table,’ ‘use willpower,’ ‘just stop eating.’ I don’t know how to describe it, but that was impossible for me.”

Since her first OA meeting, Susan has lost 118 pounds.

“I have that serenity of not obsessing from the time I get out of my bed until bed time,” Susan said. “‘What am I going to eat?’ ‘How much?’ ‘I wonder if I can eat it before anybody gets home?’ I am free of that obsession.”

According to the Web site, two women founded OA in 1960 after one of the women, Rozanne, heard about the 12 steps through a Gamblers Anonymous meeting she attended with a friend.

She was able to relate her food behavior to the compulsion the members described about their gambling habits.

Now, the group has meetings in more than 65 countries.