By Naomi Lippel
In January 1960, in a modest home in Los Angeles, California, Overeaters Anonymous was born. Founder Rozanne S.*, who had for years struggled with her weight and numerous attempts at dieting, attended a Gamblers Anonymous meeting in support of a friend. As she listened, she realized that the 12 steps they were using to recover from their gambling addiction could help her and others like her stop eating compulsively and achieve a healthy weight. The first meeting consisted of Rozanne and a neighbor who was also overweight.
Now, 55 years later, Overeaters Anonymous (OA)—whose twelve steps and structure are fashioned after that of Alcoholics Anonymous—is a thriving, non-profit organization with over 6,500 daily and weekly member-led meetings in over 75 countries, as well as online and by telephone. OA provides support to their members in a number of ways by registering all meetings and providing information on their website that is easy to access. In this way, OA aims to ensure its members that they are not alone. By encouraging members to contribute to the meetings whether by being on the board or setting up chairs, members feel empowered and engaged.
The mission of OA, as stated in its bylaws, is to aid those with the problem of compulsive overeating to overcome that problem through a 12-step program of recovery. The preamble paints a clear picture of the organization’s firmly held operating principles:Fthere
Overeaters Anonymous is a Fellowship of individuals who, through shared experience, strength, and hope, are recovering from compulsive overeating. We welcome everyone who wants to stop eating compulsively.
There are no dues or fees for members; we are self-supporting through our own contributions, neither soliciting nor accepting outside donations. OA is not affiliated with any public or private organization, political movement, ideology, or religious doctrine; we take no position on outside issues.
By using the 12 step model outlined by Alcohol Anonymous, OA teaches participants to address their food and eating issues on physical, emotional and spiritual levels. This allows members to gain inner strength to cope with life stressors without using food and other unhealthy behaviors.
As a grassroots, volunteer-based program, OA has proven successful in empowering and supporting its members to achieve a healthy weight, maintain it for the long term, and abstain from harmful eating behaviors such as bingeing, purging, starving, laxative abuse, and food and weight obsession.
In OA’s last demographic survey (2010), 69% of members reported having lost weight, with an average weight loss of 45 pounds, and 66% reported maintaining a healthy weight for between 1 and 20 years. Remarkably, also as a result of their participation in OA, the majority of members report significant improvements in their daily functioning, overall physical health, mental and emotional health, spiritual connection, and relationships. 1
Members work with a sponsor or health care professional to devise and follow a plan of eating that assists them in working toward and maintaining a healthy weight; the plan includes eliminating personal trigger foods and compulsive behaviors around food. They attend meetings and share with others who have suffered similarly and found a solution in OA. “Compulsive eating is a disease of isolation; going to meetings contradicts that isolation and the sense that no one else could possibly understand or would have the same crazy relationship with food. When people see that there are others just like them, who not only understand them but can show them a way to live that will free them of the obsession with food, it is a very powerful experience. A strong community of support grows out of that sense of recovering together,” says Naomi Lippel, Manager Director. They work with and are accountable to a trusted sponsor who helps guide them through the program and overcome challenges. And most critically, they use the twelve steps to learn a new approach to their relationship with food and life. Through practicing the program’s principles one day at a time, members find recovery physically, emotionally, and spiritually, discovering a life in which they are—often for the first time—joyous, free, and well.
Gerri H.*, OA’s current chair of the board, shares, “I spent over twenty years dieting and gaining weight, to a point of morbid obesity. Overeaters Anonymous worked for me where all my past attempts to diet had failed. I have lost over 100 pounds and am maintaining that for twenty-two years, evidence that this program works. It could be equally important to others who may be struggling with overeating, anorexia, bulimia and any other eating disorder.”
OA’s international headquarters, the World Service Office (WSO), is located in New Mexico and staffs 14 employees. OA is funded primarily by members’ voluntary contributions and literature sales; funding from outside sources is neither sought nor accepted. Due to members contributions through volunteer work or monetary donations, members are critical to OA’s success and the success of its participants. The WSO maintains an online bookstore and a website with worldwide meeting information and extensive program resources for newcomers and members; produces literature, newsletters, and a member-written magazine with inspiring stories of recovery; and hosts an annual conference and a convention every three to five years.
Overeaters Anonymous provides an effective long-term solution to the disease of compulsive overeating and other eating disorders, and does it in a principled way with a consistent message: You are not alone; there is hope; OA works if you work it.
*In keeping with OA’s principle of anonymity, members’ last names are not included in this article.
Naomi Lippel is the Managing Director of Overeaters Anonymous, Inc. Overeaters Anonymous offers a program of recovery from compulsive overeating, binge eating and other eating disorders using the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions of OA.