She would buy 5-gallon buckets of vanilla and consume the entire container, drizzled in chocolate sauce in less than a week. Bowl after bowl, quart after quart, she felt powerless to stop herself from opening the freezer and digging in.
In January 2007, she saw the 247 pounds on her 5-foot-9 frame increase and was outgrowing her size 20 pants. At age 59, she could no longer keep up with her grandchildren and decided something needed to change.
“My name is Donna and I am a recovering compulsive overeater,” she said during an Overeaters Anonymous meeting last month at Westminster Church in downtown Sacramento.
The lunch-hour gathering is one of more than 50 meetings in the area that regularly bring people together to talk about their struggles and successes in managing food addiction.
Modeled after Alcoholics Anonymous, Overeaters Anonymous is a self-directed, 12-step program that promotes well-being and helps individuals manage food obsessions.
In the Sacramento region, an estimated 300 to 500 people regularly attend such meetings, read OA literature and work with sponsors to recover from addictive consumption habits.
“I was a five-time Weight Watchers registrant, and I just wasn’t a very good dieter,” said Donna, who like others interviewed asked to be identified by first name only in accordance with the group’s pledge of anonymity.
“(OA) isn’t a diet. It’s a process of learning how to live life without using food as a stress reliever, a problem solver.”
Donna attends two meetings a week. She said she has lost 61 pounds in her five years with OA.
Founded in Los Angeles in 1960, OA serves about 54,000 members in more than 80 countries. This weekend, organizers expect more than 400 people from California, northern Nevada, Hawaii and Mexico to gather for the Region 2 Convention titled “Recovery – More Precious Than Gold.”
Uncontrollable overconsumption is a symptom of binge-eating disorder, or BED, a condition that is gaining acceptance among medical professionals.
BED was first listed in the fourth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in 1994. The manual, published by the American Psychiatric Organization, is the guide used for assessment of psychiatric illnesses.
Before that publication, the disorder was not formally identified, said Dr. Timothy Walsh, chairman of the psychiatric association’s Eating Disorders Workgroup for the upcoming fifth edition of the diagnostic manual. Recognition by medical professionals of the symptoms and potential treatments has increased over the past 20 years, with more than 1,000 articles published on the disorder, he added.
“People with binge-eating disorder compared with peers of a similar age and similar weight are more distressed and have more problems with mood and anxiety. They appear to require different types of intervention than do their peers,” Walsh said.
Like many OA members, Donna’s fight against addictive behavior is not isolated to overconsumption. She has a history with anorexia, alcoholism, drugs and compulsive spending.
Donna said she took on her father’s alcoholism and her mother’s anorexia by age 15 when she began experimenting with drugs and alcohol. For 10 years, substances helped her to maintain her “Auschwitz prisoner like frame,” she said.
By her mid-20s she was committed to an anorexia rehabilitation program, and said she has been sober since joining Alcoholics Anonymous more than 27 years ago. But in the process to recover well-being, Donna compensated by overeating.
“I started relying on food to cure my addictions,” she said. “It numbed me. It worked to relieve stress, and I began to eat in excess.” The numbers on the scale and her pants size increased in parallel until her AA sponsor helped her realize she had replaced, not gotten rid of, her addictions.
The difference this time: She could not simply eliminate food. Unlike abstinence cures for alcoholism, gambling and drugs, food addicts still must eat. Donna said she has completely cut out foods that tempt her to overeat, including sugar and flour. “I don’t eat bread. I love bread and can eat a whole loaf,” she said. “I stopped eating some foods because I obviously can’t have a reasonable portion.”
Another person fighting the battle is Christian, 50. He has also suffered from both alcoholism and compulsive overeating. He works in downtown Sacramento and attends five to six meetings each week to control his eating habits.
“I haven’t had a drink so I’m sober, but with food the line is fuzzy,” said Christian. “You have to let the tiger out of the cage three times a day and get him back in the cage again.”
OA does not prescribe a specific diet or exercise regimen. Instead, the 12-step program helps members address the “physical, emotional and spiritual” levels of their recovery, according to the website. Members are in charge of defining their own abstinence because individuals have different needs.
For Christian, abstinence has firm lines. He has set a number of rules that help him evade triggers and manage consumption habits.
He removed “red-light foods” such as sugar from his diet and does not purchase “yellow-light foods” such as chips. He no longer eats in the car, while standing or when in bed.
Each weekday morning he emails a “food plan” to his sponsor that details his typical breakfast (a PowerBar, banana and coffee), lunch (a sandwich or soup) and dinner (a combination of two items from Trader Joe’s that total less than 750 calories). Planning ahead has helped him control his habits and lose 50 pounds in just over two years.
Like many OA members, Christian and Donna both said they are still recovering.
“It’s a lifelong struggle and a lifelong program,” Donna said, adding that she relapsed last spring after missing meetings with her sponsor.
While the 12 steps of OA are directed toward binge eating – replacing the words “alcoholism” and “alcohol” in the AA literature with “compulsive overeating” and “food” – the program also helps individuals with other eating disorders including anorexia and bulimia.
“Whether we are undereating or overeating, the fact is we are not dealing with life,” said Rick, chairman of the Sacramento Valley Intergroup of OA.
Registration fees for this weekend’s convention at the Hilton Sacramento Arden West will provide funding for OA. The volunteer-based organization does not require membership fees. In addition to workshops on body image and speeches from recovering addicts, the weekend will also feature a donation-based boutique clothing exchange.
Region 2 events coordinator Cher, 67, said she has kept off 40 pounds since joining OA in 1988. She said the events will enable overeaters to identify with fellow addicts who share their stories and provide hope to those still working to recover.
“Our goal is to give support to the compulsive overeaters who still suffer, and provide support for newcomers who need strength,” Cher said.
By Jacqueline Sahlberg
Published: Thursday, Jul. 26, 2012 – 12:00 am | Page 1D
Last Modified: Thursday, Jul. 26, 2012 – 11:47 am