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The Holiday Season Poses a Challenge for Compulsive Overeaters

Overeating is a tradition of the holiday season, with most people taking great delight in big meals, high-fat munchies, high-calorie sauces and spreads, and rich desserts. For compulsive overeaters, however, the indulgence can get way out of control, with serious consequences.

Like alcoholics, compulsive overeaters have intense physical cravings and a mental obsession, but with food. They can never get enough of it. For many, food becomes a way to deal with painful feelings. Despite the discomfort of weight gain and clothes that don’t fit, and the resulting shame, they continue to eat excessively.

Some people induce vomiting to keep off the extra weight and make room for more food. Some diet and exercise but then “often to reward themselves for their good behavior” eat extra food or problem foods. Around attractive holiday spreads, the obsession with food can become unbearable.

Linda, a member of a mutual-help support group called Overeaters Anonymous (OA), always offered to set up at parties. “I could eat like crazy during setup and then, when the party started, I would eat like I was just beginning,” she said. Trying to act and appear normal while overindulging is common for the overeater, as it is for the alcoholic. Yet, said Linda, “my whole focus was on the food. I didn’t notice the people, the music or the decorations, only the food.”

For Monica, spending the holidays with her alcoholic, abusive family was full of anxiety. She survived by “sugaring up.”

For compulsive overeaters, “Eating is a substitute for true intimacy and risk,” writes Judi Hollis in her book Fat is a Family Affair. They try to “get nurturance without being vulnerable” by choosing “the controlled security of food.”

To manage their compulsive urge to eat, members of OA use the Twelve Steps of Alcoholic Anonymous, substituting the word “food” for “alcohol.” They also call on the experience, strength and hope of other food addicts and learn healthier ways to deal with feelings. To help recover, OA members get their nurturance from people instead of food, says Hollis.

The OA recovery program begins with a daily commitment to abstinence from overeating. Rather than relying on willpower, however, members turn for help to a Higher Power, or a spiritual source of their choosing. Members also conduct a gentle but honest personal inventory (Step Four) to examine the causes and effects of their food addiction. Memories and feelings long hidden may surface. OA members gradually learn to make peace with their past, develop healthier relationships, and free themselves from the control food has over their lives.

Years of recovery in OA have made it easier for Linda to go to holiday parties. “Now I don’t even think about going near the food table for a long time after I get to the party. I’m too busy enjoying the people, the decorations, the season.”

Linda feels deprived and resentful at times when rich, attractive foods are served. But now she sees her food addiction as a handicap that she has learned to accept. Faithful attendance at OA meetings, daily prayer and meditation, and daily contact with other OA members help her abstain from overeating.

For Monica, feelings became more intense around her family once she refrained from overeating. To protect her hard-won abstinence, she decided to stay away from family holiday meals for a while. She and her husband created new holiday traditions by traveling and spending time with supportive friends. When invited to parties, she calls ahead to find out what is being served. Before going to an open house, she eats an abstinent meal and skips the food served there.

Around the holiday season, Monica goes to extra OA meetings, reads more OA literature, and increases her time in prayer. If she does feel an urge to binge, she retreats to a private place and says the Serenity Prayer.

For help in dealing with compulsive overeating, consult with a physician or an eating disorders clinic. To learn about OA groups in your area, contact OA World Services in Rio Rancho, New Mexico, at 505-891-2664. Hazelden offers a variety of educational materials on eating disorders, including Food for Thought: Daily Meditations for Overeaters by Elizabeth L. For a list of materials, call (800) 328-9000.

– by Don Carroll

Reprinted with Permission from Alive & Free, a chemical health column provided by Hazelden, a nonprofit agency that provides a wide range of information and services relating to addiction and recovery. Address questions to Alive & Free Editor, PO Box 11, BC 10, Center City, MN 55012-0011. For more resources on substance abuse, call Hazelden at (800) 328-9000 or check its web site at

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