Facing a dozen strangers seated around a table, a heavyset man put down his coffee and paused before introducing himself: “My name is Christian, and I’m a compulsive overeater.”
For the next hour, members of the MetroWest (Mass.) Intergroup of Overeaters Anonymous shared personal stories of long-term weight gain and triumphs over and continuing struggles with obesity.
Unlike Weight Watchers or similar organizations, no one sold prepared meals, weighed members or made sure fees were paid. They addressed each another only by first names to reinforce the confidentiality necessary for members to reveal painful secrets.
A middle-aged man described “getting bigger and bigger and hoping I wouldn’t have a heart attack.” A woman told of losing 120 pounds and “keeping it off for 20 years.” A first-time visitor spoke of being mocked for her weight and “just wanting to feel good about myself.”
About 5,000 registered meetings like this, averaging 10 members, took place in the U.S. last week with another 1,500 meetings in 75 countries, according to Naomi Lippel, managing director of Overeaters Anonymous, which is based in Rio Rancho, N.M.
She described OA as a grass-roots organization that uses the 12-step program popularized by Alcoholics Anonymous to help people who eat compulsively. Lippel said OA helps members overcome eating disorders by providing information, a supportive environment and arranging “sponsors” who provide around-theclock encouragement and advice about daily food plans
OA members credit the group for providing the tolerance and understanding to manage their eating and live healthy lives.
Ann, a teacher and actor who joined in 1990, said she initially “hated” the meetings but knew at 215 pounds she was facing serious medical issues.
Despite her misgivings and early weight gains, she credited OA’s “gut-level honesty” for helping her give up flour and sugar products and eventually lose 80 pounds. “We’re more than a support group. The 12 steps changed me,” Ann said.
For members, OA’s principal benefit, said Lippel, is providing regular support and understanding from others who acknowledge they are “powerless over food” and trust “a power greater than ourselves” to help them.
“Members are meeting in a place where they’re hearing stories like their own. They know they’re not alone and they’re going to get the support they need,” Lippel said.
To find an Overeaters Anonymous group near you, go to www.oa.org or call 505-891-2664.