BY CADY KUZMICH
Clifton Park — As Valentine’s Day nears and grocery store aisles become bloated with heart-shaped boxes of sweets, some may find themselves rushing to the register in an effort to avoid the temptation.
Often a topic of self-deprecating jokes, overeating is a dangerous habit that can impact all aspects of an individual’s life. Some of the signs of compulsive eating include binge eating, grazing, laxative abuse, excessive exercise, bulimia, food fantasies, use of diet pills, the use of food as a reward and vulnerability to quick-weight-loss schemes.
While it may surprise some, compulsive eating is a habit among people of all shapes and sizes. “You will find members who are extremely overweight, even morbidly obese; moderately overweight; average weight; underweight; still maintaining periodic control over their eating behavior; or totally unable to control their compulsive eating,” said Denise, an Overeaters Anonymous member who spoke to Your Clifton Park under the condition that we omit her last name.
Overeaters Anonymous, founded in 1960 and active in 75 countries, is a free support group for those struggling with compulsive eating. There are now 6,500 groups worldwide.
Overeaters Anonymous meets at a variety of locations throughout the Capital District, including St. George’s Episcopal Church in Clifton Park every Monday at 7:30 p.m.The group stresses the value of anonymity, which Denise explained “offers members freedom of expression, equality and safeguards” in the community.
The group follows a 12-step recovery program based on the well-known Alcoholics Anonymous program. “Through the use of the 12 steps and the experience, strength and hope of a supportive fellowship, people often find relief from the symptoms of compulsive eating, ” said Denise.
Denise was first introduced to the group by a friend. At that point in her life, she was about 30 pounds overweight and still wasn’t sure what it meant to be a compulsive eater. What she did know, however, was that she had a problem with sweets. “I could not go two or three days without eating something with sugar in it; it was a constant battle,” she said.
Initially, Denise was nervous about attending one of the group’s meetings. She said she “felt a lot of shame about not being able to control and manage my weight.”
About 20 people were in attendance at the first Overeaters Anonymous meeting she attended 27 years ago. “They were all shapes and sizes, ages, [and] income levels. I felt a warmth in the room and was inspired by what people shared, both their joy and pain, and felt hope.”
After attending a few more meetings, Denise realized her eating habits were linked to something much deeper than a lack of willpower — something she felt she had no control over.
“I needed help and support from the group and a power greater than me,” she said. She thinks of the group as a spiritual program but notes “there are no requirements for any type of specific beliefs – spiritual, religious or otherwise.”
With the help of sponsors, Denise began to learn new ways of caring for herself in a healthy ways. Members help each other identify “triggers that would cause someone to eat compulsively, how to figure out social and work situations regarding food, [and how to listen] to the pain that comes once the compulsive eating behavior is stopped,” said Denise.
These days, attendance at the Clifton Park meeting typically ranges from three to 10 people. Unsurprisingly, she said the group sees a spike in attendance after the holidays. But more often, Denise explained, “people come when they are in pain and have usually exhausted a variety of options.”
Meeting others with struggles similar to her own helped Denise feel less overwhelmed. “The shame and isolation were lifted,” she said.
She emphasized that the group is not a weight management program. “The weight is a symptom; people can be average weight and attend meetings because their relationship to food is painful for them and is causing a variety of problems in their lives,” she said. Although she noted, people who attend regularly do tend to lose weight through the 12-step process.
Reach Gazette reporter Cady Kuzmich at 269-7239 or firstname.lastname@example.org.