After years of struggling with overeating, two Lower Mainland residents say they have finally found a long-term solution when they started looking at their issues as a disease with the help of Overeaters Anonymous.

Compulsive overeating is a serious problem that some people have wrestled with for years. 

But in the medical community, there's no consensus about whether compulsive eating should be recognized as a disease or an addiction.

While research has shown that certain foods can be highly-addictive, a new study from the University of Edinburgh suggests that an addiction to eating should be classified as a behavioural disorder or a mental illness.

Essentially some people are addicted to the act of eating, rather than the food, the researchers concluded.

In B.C.'s Lower Mainland, a few of those struggling with eating say that while weight loss programs have failed them, they've seen long-term results through an organization called Overeaters Anonymous. 

Overeaters Anonymous describes itself as a fellowship in more than 70 countries, patterned after Alcoholics Anonymous, that has 12 steps and 12 traditions. It treats compulsive overeating as a disease.

Two OA members recently shared their stories with CBC Radio's On The Coast. Like Alcoholics Anonymous — OA members don't share their last names, and the views they express are their own.

Tom's story: finding acceptance

Tom has been a member of OA for 13 years. He says both his parents were alcoholics. He struggled with his weight for years, at one point ballooning up to 300 pounds.

When he was 52 years old, he had to have an operation to replace a defective heart valve. He never cared that he was obese, he said, "but now it was important. They said I would die if I didn't fix it." 

'You might have a piece of cake and think, "that was good, but I won't have any more." We would eat the whole cake and wonder why people are looking at us funny.' - Tom, B.C. member of Overaeaters Anonymous

He struggled for two years to lose the weight. It was mostly fudge and sweets that were the issue, he says.

Eventually, after trying what he calls "weigh and pay" programs and even considering hypnosis, he found OA through an interest in Alcoholics Anonymous.

It took him several months to acknowledge he had an addiction to eating: "I just wouldn't admit it and I wouldn't talk about it to anybody... including wives," he says.

Tom says Overeaters Anonymous has helped him manage his eating addiction. Going to meetings and sharing his experiences with other like-minded people has been working for him. Tom says he's now about 200 pounds, and a much more likeable person. 

"I'm easier to get along with ..and happier," he says.

He says OA works because there are other people in the program who are exactly like him. 

"I always felt like an alien... all my life. And the first time I went to a meeting I felt like I'd come home," he says.

Tom now refers to people who are not compulsive eaters as "normies." 

"You might have a piece of cake and think, 'that was good, but I won't have any more.' We would eat the whole cake and wonder why people are looking at us funny," he said. "We're all a bit crazy around the food thing." 

Tom says the program also teaches members to take it one day at a time, so if he gives in to his eating addiction, he will start over again.

Estelle's story: secret eating

Estelle says Overeaters Anonymous has helped her keep her weight down after she she tried various commercial weight loss programs. At OA, she explained, there are no fees, and members are asked to attend meetings once a week. 

They're also encouraged to get a sponsor to help them through their daily challenges. Tom is Estelle's sponsor. 

Overeating for Estelle meant buying a dozen eclairs and two chocolate cakes and eating them in five minutes in her car in secret — no one has ever seen her overeat, she says.

Estelle says she had a happy childhood, but her father would hide the sweets from her because he didn't want her to be overweight. So, she learned to eat in secret. 

Over the years she has lost and gained 100 pounds eight times. Every time she'd get her weight down, she'd start going back to bakeries and would regain the weight in about six months, she says,

As her weight went up and down like a yo-yo, her doctors became increasingly concerned for her health. Estelle says she decided to try Overeaters Anonymous after she heard about the organization from a friend.

At her first meeting, she walked in and saw 12 people in the room. She thought she had nothing in common with them. When the first person spoke, she realized he did exactly what she was doing.

It took time and work, she said, but she has managed to keep the weight off. She says OA teaches a lifestyle rather than how to shed pounds. 

"This time, food is not the issue," she says. 

When she ran into minor inconveniences in the past, such as when a car cut her off or she was running late, she'd feel like overeating. She said she has since learned to change her behaviour: "I found myself not wanting to eat extra," she says.

OA can help, says family physician

Dr. William Cavers, president of Doctors of B.C. and a family physician in Victoria, said he is seeing an epidemic of obesity among the patients he encounters.

He said that for most of the obese patients he meets, the issue is usually lifestyle: "a little bit too much food and too little exercise."

Addiction

Among medical experts, there are many opinions about how to classify compulsive overeaters and eating addictions, but a study out of Edinburgh suggests that an addiction to eating should be classified as a behavioural disorder or a mental illness.

But, for a smaller group of patients, the problem appears to be different, he says.

"They certainly do seem to have an inability to avoid taking in certain foods, and they have a difficulty in stopping eating when they start," Cavers says.

When he looks at a person who is overeating, he also considers whether they have a family history of alcoholism, or a tendency toward obsessive-compulsive disorder.

"We know in medicine, certain conditions are linked and can be passed down in families," Cavers says.

Though compulsive eating on its own is not recognized as a disease or medical condition, it can arise from any number of root causes, including anxiety and depression, substance abuse, eating disorders and obsessive compulsive disorders, he says..

Cavers says a 12-step program like Overeaters Anonymous won't work for everybody, but can definitely help some people.  

"If they are showing that tendency to the addictive behaviour, I would certainly encourage them to participate. Not dabble, but participate fully to see if it does work for them," he says.