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A figure pushing a shopping trolley dwarfed and surrounded by giant packets of foodBBC Three / David Weller

'It was like I had to control a monster inside me that wanted to eat everything'

Just what happens at a support group for compulsive eaters?

Natalie Ktena

“I was broken, on my knees and wanting to take my own life.”

Sarah* is sitting on the fringes of a sharing circle with her arms nervously wrapped around her body. Fifty other people are quietly watching her in the large, white meeting room. Though the group meeting takes place off a busy London street, on this weekend morning, it is a quiet oasis. Everyone is listening intently as Sarah shares the time in her life when she felt most vulnerable.

“Supermarkets were my worst nightmare,” she says. “Being surrounded by foods that could make me binge would make me cry.”

Sarah is taking part in an Overeaters Anonymous (OA) meeting. These sessions are designed to help people who are recovering from compulsive overeating and other compulsive food behaviours like bulimia, among others. The former is when someone feels compelled to eat when they’re not hungry and can’t stop even when they are full. It’s a behaviour often associated with the potentially life-threatening Binge Eating Disorder (BED) - the second most common eating disorder in the UK. 

You might imagine you know what it's like to overeat. You’ve probably joked that you’re “addicted” to chocolate, that you can’t say no to an office biscuit (even when you’re stuffed) or that a tub of cookie dough ice cream got you through your last break-up. But for the people like those in the group gathered here, the urge to overeat means something far more serious.

According to the National Centre for Eating Disorders, one in two people who seek help for weight loss overeat compulsively – that’s about 12 million people in the UK.

Overeating is hitting the headlines more and more. Popular thinking about possible solutions still pivots around talk of willpower, while the government and official bodies are focusing on guideline portion sizes and taxing sugar to try to stop us over-indulging. Currently, the NHS offers Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and guided self-help sessions as treatment for BED.

But for those for whom overeating becomes a compulsion, there is an alternative solution.

A group of silhouetted figures sat of chairs in a circle around a giant donutBBC Three / David Weller

At Overeaters Anonymous, there isn’t a set of scales in sight. Instead, members follow a 12-step programme, similar to the one used in Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). Steps range from admitting you are powerless around food to making amends with those you have hurt through your eating issues. Participants are supported by a sponsor who has recovered and they attend meetings – like the one Sarah is sitting in.

While AA is recommended by the NHS as part of a recovery plan for alcoholism, doctors in the UK don't formally suggest OA to patients struggling with eating issues or disorders. The group started in Los Angeles in 1960 and, according to their website, they now have 6,500 groups in more than 75 countries, with a total membership of about 54,000 people.

Spotting an "overeater" can be tricky – for starters, they are not necessarily overweight. They can be anything from morbidly obese to underweight. Binge-eating can affect anyone of any age - the meeting has participants from their early 20s to their 70s. There’s a mixture of ethnicities and accents, and people are dressed in clothes ranging from sports gear to smart shirts and trousers. Despite the intensity of some of the feelings shared, the atmosphere is calming, with men and women sharing smiles and supportive looks.

“I’m petrified,” says one woman who is about to go on a two-week holiday with family. She’s afraid it may trigger her to lose control and eat to excess. A woman in her 60s explains she has been abstinent - refrained from compulsive eating - since the 1980s. “I take the addiction with me wherever I go,” she explains. “I will be working the steps for the rest of my life.”

During the group discussion, several of the participants describe themselves as feeling "addicted to food". Hannah*, a 24-year-old theatre set designer, is one of them. She had tried everything from seeing a therapist to traditional Chinese medicine before she attended OA. She struggled with anorexia in her teens, which she tells me went hand in hand with bingeing behaviour.

“It was almost like I had to control this monster inside me that wanted to eat everything,” she says.

A stack of empty plates piled up in front of a monster holding a knife and forkBBC Three / David Weller

Some of her worst binges were in university halls, where Hannah shared a kitchen with five other flatmates. When no one was around, she would find herself browsing her flatmates' supplies in search of a food "hit".

“The secrecy made it an adrenaline rush,” she says. “I’d go into people’s cupboards and take a bit of this or a spoonful of that. I’d be so on edge."

Hannah would binge on anything she could get her hands on. “I’d even take frozen vegetables from the freezer or put ketchup on a salad leaf,” she recalls. 

After a binge, Hannah would subject herself to periods of intense exercising and controlling her diet before she would inevitably find herself bingeing again. The impact on her mental health of this constant cycle of disordered eating left her feeling desperate. She started looking for help online and discovered Overeaters Anonymous in the comments thread of a blog.

At first, Hannah wasn't convinced the 12 steps would work for her. But, like at AA, OA members are paired with a sponsor who has experience of taking part in the programme. Hannah and her sponsor worked through the steps together but it wasn’t an easy road. Step Nine - where participants are asked to make amends to those they have harmed - was particularly challenging.

When she first considered making amends to her old flatmates, she says the idea left her “cringing” because she was worried about what they would think. But she persevered. 

“I said sorry to the [flatmates] I took food from – some in person and some over Skype because they now live in other countries,” she says. "They were all really sweet." Some did find it a bit awkward though, she admits.

"That’s the thing, making amends is not always this big amazing experience,” she says. "Some people are just naturally a bit like ‘oh, weird'."

The important thing for her wasn't the outcome but clearing away her "emotional baggage" to give her the freedom to move on from her food issues.  

It meant she shed her eating behaviour without even realising. “I was just so focused on [working through the steps] that I looked back and realised that - oh my god - I’ve eaten three meals a day for a few months now and I didn’t really think about it.”

A silhouetted figure stealing some food from a glowing fridgeBBC Three / David Weller

Addressing the group next is Zoe*, 26, who works in finance. Calmly, she confesses she was once “insecure and food-obsessed” and didn’t think she’d ever get over her compulsive eating. “I felt like I needed to be put in prison to recover,” she says.

Her compulsive overeating caused her uni studies to suffer, isolated her from her friends and left her self-esteem at rock bottom, she adds.

She got to a point at university where she couldn't envisage her future. "I definitely wasn’t suicidal but I couldn’t imagine graduating," she says. "I just couldn’t think what my life would be like because all I could think about was making it through the day without bingeing. That was how small my existence was.

"I could only focus on that day and being thin.”

Four years ago, she decided to confront her issues around eating and checked herself into a private rehab clinic.

It was here that she first came into contact with Overeaters Anonymous. After a few false starts and a relationship breakdown, she focused her efforts fully on following the programme. 

“Today, I eat whatever,” says Zoe. “If I feel like having fish and chips on a Sunday, I do. I honestly haven't thought of bingeing in three years.”

George*, 37, sits on the other side of the circle from Zoe and is easy to spot - he's one of the few men in the room. This is perhaps unsurprising. Although research suggests 25% of people with eating disorders are men, conditions like anorexia and binge eating disorder are still seen by many as illnesses for women, leaving men less confident about coming forward.

"With me, food was central to comfort, reward, love - everything," he says. Having become overweight as a young boy, he joined a slimming club in his early teens. “I was a 14 year old who could tell you there were more calories in a green apple than a red apple,” he says. He was obsessive about food and by his 20s, he started purging. So began a cycle of overeating and bulimia. 

“I would diet - put on five stone, lose five stone, put on five stone, lose five stone every 12 to 18 months.”

Encouraged by his boyfriend, George finally went to see his GP and was referred to an eating disorders unit, where he was diagnosed with bulimia and compulsive eating. But, when he first arrived at the hospital, he felt uncomfortable.

“I walked in and – being a fat guy, aged 32 – I felt like such a fraud, like I didn’t qualify and I shouldn’t be there,” he says. “I felt a lot of shame around being a man.”

A figure climbing a staircase on which there is an arrow and the words binge free pointing towards the topBBC Three / David Weller

While the number of men going to OA meetings is lower than women, George - who has been attending meetings for five years - has noticed a small increase. Whereas before you would only see about two men in a room of about 60, he says it's now more like eight or 10. 

George, like Hannah and Zoe, describes himself as having been “addicted” to food. 'Food addiction' is a controversial subject. Research from 2014 suggests there isn’t sufficient evidence to label any specific food as addictive. Researchers instead proposed the term 'eating addiction' to help underscore a more behavioural element. Some psychologists believe the label 'addiction' is unhelpful, claiming it stops people from taking responsibility for their overeating and recovery.

Deanne Jade, founder of the National Centre for Eating Disorders, dismisses the idea of "food addiction" but acknowledges that people attending OA could find it supportive, as overeating compulsively is a “lonely problem”.

However, in her view, psychological assessment is necessary to work out whether or not someone truly has a problem with overeating - some people, she explains, think they have overeaten after one bar of chocolate.

“How do you distinguish an overeater from an emotional eater from a compulsive eater?” she asks. “There isn’t a red line. It takes a lot of observation from someone qualified to know whether this person thinks they overeat or they actually do."

She explains that in blind trials where a person who claims to be addicted to sugar is given some, but the taste is masked, they respond as if they haven't eaten it - by not showing increases in cravings or loss of control. This suggests that any 'addictive' effects of these substances are largely psychological.

A figure pushing a shopping trolley dwarfed by giant packets of foodBBC Three / David Weller

But not all eating disorder specialists share Deanne's view. Nicola Schlesinger, a counsellor who works with women who have issues with addiction and eating disorders, told the BBC in 2013 that scientists who do not believe in food addiction don't see what she does on a daily basis - people "in tears, in pain, hating themselves, feeling suicidal" as a result of their food issues. 

"They can say what they like but in the end, we still have to deal with the reality of the situation as it presents itself," she said.

As the OA session draws to a close, the meeting secretary asks whether the group has any OA milestones to celebrate.

“Yes,” says one young man, straightening up in his chair. He was celebrating his one month milestone. 

A huge, beaming smile spreads across his face and the room bursts into a round of applause. 

*Some details have been changed to protect the anonymity of contributors

If you have been affected by any of the issues raised in this article, information about help and support is available here.

This article was originally published on 25 February 2019.