Eating too many chips, cookies, ice cream and donuts is a weighty issue for Americans. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, one-third of American adults are overweight. Another third are obese.
Although the majority of people find eating a healthy, enjoyable and manageable experience, a growing segment of the population can’t stop eating. According to Overeaters Anonymous (OA) hundreds of thousands of people, around the globe, consider themselves food addicts. Food addiction recovery programs have provided a successful structure and path which allows obese people to lose weight and embrace a healthy lifestyle. For recovery program critics, the message and methods are destructive and fear-filled. There are food experts who say the food industry is to blame because it hawks calorie-packed, processed food items that stimulate brain centers powerless to resist.
The scale-tipping facts provided by leading health experts are shocking. Adult obesity rates have doubled in the past 30 years. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the ability and inability to eat normal portions of healthy foods is destroying lives and health.
“At one point in my life, all I wanted to do was sit and eat,” said Stacie Young, a mother of two, professional musician and food addict. “I weighed 240 pounds before I decided to join Overeaters Anonymous and lost 105 pounds.”
Known commonly by members as the Alcoholics’ Anonymous (AA) for food, Overeaters Anonymous (OA) is a 12-step based non-profit organization that is open to anyone who has a problem with food.
“Those who suffer from compulsive eating, food addiction or other eating disorders report an obsession with food that is similar in character to an addiction to alcohol,” said Naomi Lippel, OA’s national managing director.
OA was founded in 1960 by a California woman, identified only as Rozanne S., who attended a Gamblers’ Anonymous meeting with a friend and realized its program provided the support to overcome her own compulsive eating. According to the OA national service office in New Mexico, OA has about 5,000 meetings registered worldwide in 75 countries.
There has been controversy surrounding food plans in OA since its inception.
According to Sheira Kahn, a Marin County, California clinical counselor, author and national speaker on eating disorders, some OA groups use destructive motivators, including fear.
“Some OA groups adopt the Alcoholics’ Anonymous tenet that says, ‘If you go out (of the program), you will get in trouble, and perhaps even die,’ ” said Kahn. “A common inner critic line is, ‘don’t eat because then you’ll get fat and no one will love you.’ For those OA groups that use fear, they are operating in the same emotional mode as the eating disorder.”
Vickie W., a decade-long OA participant and OA Board of Trustees member, disagrees.
“When I first came into OA, I was given a copy of the “AA Big Book,” she said. “When I read it, I realized the thinking and rationalizations for drinking were almost parallel with my thinking and rationalizations with eating,” said Vickie W.
Based on OA published material, a cornerstone of the program is the member’s commitment to a daily food plan and abstinence from any morsel of food outside of that plan.
“I lost the privilege of eating without a plan when I admitted my addiction,” said Young. “And, when the first compulsive act is eating something off my list, I need to get help immediately.”
According to OA, prime drivers of overeating are sugar, fat and salt. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration published data supports this view and encourages consumers to read labels to find the correct daily serving levels of these highly addictive ingredients.
David A. Kessler, a Harvard-trained doctor, lawyer, medical school dean and former commissioner of the FDA, is on a mission to understand a problem that has plagued him since childhood; — why he can’t resist eating, and overeating, certain foods. In his book, “The End of Overeating,” he published his theory based on scientific approaches to food content and compulsions.
According to Kessler, many foods are bathed in multiple layers of salt, fat and sugars beyond what is healthy. Kessler said this contributes to craving and addictions
Stacie Young agrees with Kessler’s theory.
“Most people who reach a point of needing to lose 100 or more pounds have unhealthy cravings of food and use food like alcoholics use alcohol, to numb their feelings,” said Young. “In recovery we learn to surrender those feelings.”
But for many OA proponents, organizational success is not just about members’ weight loss, but more about the development of healthier relationships with food. Lippel says that proof of the OA 12-step approach’s effectiveness is not based solely on significant weight loss for members.
“While the program may not work for everyone or be appropriate for all, it does work for many who have compulsive eating issues,” said Lippel. “Members make positive changes in their lives by addressing the underlying causes of their relationship to food.”
Based on a 2004 OA-commissioned survey conducted by Gallop, 46 percent of OA members achieved a healthy body weight since joining OA. The report also indicated that about 33 percent of members reported an improvement in eating habits to the level of maintaining abstinence. Almost half of OA members reported achieving a significant improvement in eating habits.
According to the CDC, more people fail than succeed in sticking to diet programs and the reasons why are mostly about our environment. The Center’s Division of Nutrition, Physical Activity, and Obesity (DNPAO) says that the American society has become ‘obesogenic,’ characterized by environments that promote increased food intake, nonhealthful foods, and physical inactivity. According to the DNPAO, policy and environmental change initiatives that make healthy choices in nutrition and physical activity available, affordable, and easy will likely prove most effective in combating obesity.
Within the central Wisconsin communities of Eau Claire and Chippewa Falls, there are weekly OA meetings as well as daily OA phone support programs available to anyone who has issues with food.
Young gets to one OA meeting 30 minutes before the other members are due to arrive. She turns on the lights, then places a call to her sponsor and takes a call from someone she sponsors. Cars start to pull into the church parking lot about five minutes before meeting start time. Men and women of all shapes and sizes exit their cars. A single greeter stands by the door and asks unfamiliar faces whether they are here for the OA meeting. There are three new people at the meeting today.
The meeting, which will run about two hours, is called to order by a volunteer leader. There are no snack breaks.